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Report: The Senate confirmation process is dysfunctional — but it can be fixed

Marty Walsh

The Senate confirmed Marty Walsh as secretary of labor in late March, 75 days after his Joe Biden announced his nomination.

Graeme Jennings/Getty Images

Over the past six decades, the number of federal government roles requiring Senate approval has nearly doubled and the process to confirm them has become increasingly arduous and politicized, a recent report found.

This persistent dysfunction within the confirmation process has led to more vacancies in the federal government, reducing the president's capacity to govern and the Senate's power to hold officials accountable, according to the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Presidential Transition.

The nonpartisan nonprofit's report, released Monday, analyzed how the Senate confirmation process over the last several presidential administrations has created serious barriers to the effectiveness of the federal government. The report also proposes several ways to streamline the process moving forward.

The president selects about 4,000 people for various roles within the executive branch and independent agencies, and more than 1,200 of those appointees require Senate confirmation. These roles can range from high profile positions that help implement the president's agenda to part-time ceremonial roles.

Since 1960, the number of Senate-confirmed positions has grown from 779 to 1,237 in 2016 — a 59 percent increase.

Some of these roles were created to help the government address new challenges. Examples of recently established agencies include the Department of Homeland Security, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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But once created, Senate-confirmed positions are hard to reform or eliminate, the report notes. In 2011, Congress passed legislation that converted 163 positions to presidential appointments. This did little to halt the growth of Senate-confirmed roles, though. From 2012 to 2016, more than two dozen positions requiring confirmation were added.

Additionally, it takes more time than ever before to confirm all these positions. The average Senate confirmation process took 117 days during the Trump administration and 112 days during the Obama administration — twice as long as it did during the Reagan administration (56 days).

Following this trend, Joe Biden had the fewest number of cabinet nominees confirmed on his inauguration day in recent history.

The Senate's confirmation of presidential nominees has also become an increasingly politicized process as the minority party uses parliamentary tactics to gum up the works. One increasingly common tool is the filibuster, which is used to slow, if not block nominees. That in turn has led to a rise in filibuster-ending cloture votes, the procedure used to end debate on a motion and proceed to a final vote.

And these lengthy confirmation processes also mean positions in the federal government remain vacant for longer periods of time.

To temporarily fill vacancies for Senate-confirmation roles, presidents have often employed acting officials. "However, what should be a stop-gap measure has become a more semi-permanent solution as the executive branch has increasingly relied on acting officials, often in response to the Senate's slow and intricate confirmation process," the report states.

The Center for Presidential Transition identified seven potential solutions to streamline the confirmation process:

  • Convert some Senate-confirmed positions to non-confirmed presidential appointments.
  • Assign more Senate-confirmed positions to fixed-length terms to reduce the turnover in key roles.
  • Expand the norm of holding over critical officials until successors are confirmed in the short term.
  • Convert a portion of political appointments to nonpolitical career roles.
  • Convert select Senate-confirmed political appointments on commissions and boards to non-confirmed roles or to agency-controlled appointments.
  • Eliminate redundant and consistently vacant appointments.
  • Enhance the Senate's "privileged" nomination process to allow certain nominees to bypass committee procedures.

The Framers intended the nomination-and-confirmation process to allow presidents to appoint the best candidates to their administrations, while preventing them from installing unsuitable or corrupt individuals. This objective still has merit and should be maintained, the report says.

"However, the current number of Senate-confirmed positions has created a logjam, hindering the ability of administrations to fill critical roles and undermining the effectiveness of the American government," the report concludes. "It is only through cooperation across the executive and legislative branches that the current appointment process can be reformed from the unsustainable status quo."

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Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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