The collapse of the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare last week was followed by some unnerving revelations in the press, which painted a picture of a president who dismissed Republicans’ paramount concerns as “the little sh**” and a White House counselor who insisted to skeptical lawmakers that they had “no choice” but to vote for the bill.
Now comes another glaring sign that the young administration is ill-prepared for the duties of governing: The astonishing number of high-level positions that President Trump still has yet to fill.
The Partnership for Public Service identified 553 key positions in the federal government that require Senate confirmation: cabinet secretaries, assistant secretaries, administrators, ambassadors, chief counsels, directors, and so on. As of March 28, Trump had named 61 people to these positions, 21 of whom had been confirmed by the Senate. That figure doesn’t reflect well on the Senate, but it still leaves an astonishing 492 key government positions awaiting a nominee. In the meantime, all of those jobs are being done by holdover appointees of the previous administration or acting officials from the civil service.
You might think that by late March, an administration that considers immigration enforcement such a priority would have named its own director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or its own commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or its own assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security, or its own assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration at the State Department, or a new director of the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, or a special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practices at the DOJ.
Trump hasn’t named nominees for any of those slots.
Conservatives have high hopes for far-reaching education reforms under Secretary Betsy DeVos. She would probably have more success overcoming any foot-dragging from the permanent bureaucracy if she had a deputy secretary, a general counsel, a chief financial officer, an undersecretary, or a like-minded warm body in any one of the seven unfilled assistant secretary positions at the Education Department.
At the State Department, Rex Tillerson is operating with 110 fewer presidential appointees than he should be. He’s missing a deputy secretary, a chief financial officer, an undersecretary for management, an assistant secretary for legislative affairs, an assistant secretary for intelligence, a coordinator for counter-terrorism, a representative to the European Union, and a special envoy for North Korea. There are no ambassadors to Germany, Canada, France, the Holy See, India, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or South Korea, and there is no permanent representative to NATO.
There are another 43 unfilled key positions in the Department of Defense, 21 in the Department of Energy, and 20 at the Department of the Treasury.
The lack of Trump nominees is all the more surprising considering all the talk about the “deep state” and the administration’s justifiable concern that career government employees and Obama-administration holdovers will attempt to delay or sabotage its agenda. In March, the Washington Post reported on the administration’s “commissars” in the cabinet agencies, “senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries’ loyalty.” Perhaps the description is overwrought, but the move seems bizarre. These cabinet secretaries need a real staff a lot more than they need someone looking over their shoulders.
Back in February, Trump said he hadn’t announced nominees for some of these lower-profile positions because he felt they weren’t needed: “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have. You know, we have so many people in government, even me, I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say what do all these people do? You don’t need all those jobs.”
Maybe you can argue some of duties of these undersecretary positions could be better consolidated under one post. Perhaps the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy doesn’t need four presidential appointees, nor the U.S. Parole Commission at the Department of Justice. Then again, the president gets to appoint eight members of the Internal Revenue Service Oversight Board; after the IRS scandal, shouldn’t conservatives expect eight sharp-eyed watchdogs in those positions? Right now, the Oversight Board doesn’t have enough members to make up a quorum and as a result has suspended operations. It’s effectively shut down until the Senate confirms enough new members.
Still other appointed positions may appear unnecessary, as Trump argued. But the Census Bureau is going to need a director. So will the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Parks Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Mint, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Peace Corps. There’s a need for administrators at NASA, the General Services Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
If the administration wants to get rid of any of these agencies, Trump ought to formally call for their elimination and try to achieve it through legislation. Otherwise, they will remain operational, headed by figures who likely range from neutral to hostile to the White House’s agenda.
Staffing the government with the right people is one of the key early tests of a president’s competence. Trump has yet to pass it.
— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.