One month into his administration, Donald Trump is trailing behind other recent presidents in getting his cabinet confirmed by the Senate. To date, 14 of Trump’s 22 cabinet-rank nominees have been approved. President Barack Obama had 16 cabinet-rank appointees on the job by this point in 2009, including one holdover. George W. Bush had 18 in 2001, and Bill Clinton had 17 in 1993.
While Trump was quick to publicly announce his cabinet picks after the November election, the nominees had not been vetted yet, and the reviews that followed were slowed by the unusually complex financial portfolios of many of the individuals chosen. The confirmation process has also been delayed for some nominees because of Democratic opposition.
Getting his cabinet through the arduous vetting and confirmation process, however, is just the beginning. Trump has the authority to make about 4,000 political appointments, with more than 1,100 requiring Senate confirmation. Besides the cabinet, appointees needing Senate approval include deputy, under and assistant secretaries; chief financial officers; general counsels; ambassadors, and members of boards and commissions, among others.
It normally takes a president more than a year to get the lion’s share of his appointees in place, leaving the management of agencies and departments in the hands of career employees who are not in position to make critical and long-term decisions. And many of the early appointees leave government within 18 months, creating another vacuum and requiring this process to begin all over again.
No other democracy has so many political jobs, such wholesale turnover at the start of a new administration or so many top-level positions that remain vacant for such long periods of time. As a result, every administration is impeded in achieving its policy goals, hits bumps managing large and complex government departments, and is not always fully prepared to handle the unexpected but inevitable crises.
There are too many political appointees and bureaucratic hierarchies with layer after layer of executives, leading to policy and management bottlenecks and dysfunction. The number of political appointees must be reduced. In addition, purely management jobs such as chief financial officers and chief acquisition officers should be shifted by Congress from political to career status, eliminating the need for Senate confirmation and allowing for longer tenures to address long-term problems.
Congress also should streamline the slow, cumbersome vetting process by creating one consistent, common online database for the nominees instead of the multiple and repetitive questionnaires now in use. Under such a plan, a nominee could offer information through a single portal to the White House, the FBI, the Office of Government Ethics and all 17 Senate committees with jurisdiction over nominees.
Although Trump has encountered problems getting his cabinet in place and will likely hit additional roadblocks in the months ahead, the confirmation process has been slow, brutal and fraught with difficulty for every president and for the people they have appointed to serve in government. After the dust settles from this current cycle, Congress should pass changes that will enable new presidents to get their leadership teams in place more quickly, so they can be better prepared to govern.