President Trump moved this month to beef up his White House staff, adding former Reagan budget official Larry Kudlow as his chief economic adviser and John Bolton, another Reagan veteran, to head his National Security Council. But 14 months into his term, the president will have to do a lot better if he’s going to fill out an administration that in many areas has so many vacancies, it is still in “Home Alone” status.
Trump is convinced he knows whose fault that is. “The Democrats continue to obstruct the confirmation of hundreds of good and talented people who are needed to run our government,” he wrote on Twitter this month. It’s certainly true that Senate Democrats are engaged in pure monkey-wrench politics when they insist on a full 30 hours of debate time on non-controversial nominees many of them wind up voting for. More on that later.
It’s also true that most presidents come into office with layers of advisers, experts, and administrators they’ve known for years who’ve been waiting to slide into key positions. As a “disruptive” candidate who ran against Washington, Trump didn’t have that infrastructure in place.
That said, the president hasn’t moved nearly fast enough in filling out the sub-cabinet government of officials who, because they are personally appointed by the president, are charged with making Trump policies a reality. Of the top 640 jobs that require Senate confirmation, the Partnership for Public Service has calculated that fewer than half — 275 — have been confirmed and are on the job. Another 144 people have been named or nominated but are awaiting confirmation. A total of 217 positions — a third of the total — have never had anyone named to fill them.
The longer those positions remain vacant, the longer they will remain in the hands of career civil servants or political holdovers from the Obama administration.
“The White House needs to replace departed senior officials with capable successors, fill the key political positions that will help it lead and manage the government, and grasp the proper relationship between political leaders and career administrators,” Douglas Brook of Duke University, a former member of transition teams for both Bush administrations, wrote in The Hill last week.
But President Trump must also move aggressively to limit Democratic obstructionism over many of his nominees. Democrats have forced 78 cloture votes on Trump’s nominees, meaning that the Senate must go through up to 30 hours of debate before it will vote on a nominee.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, needs to keep the Senate in session longer so more nominees can be confirmed. He should also consider modifying the cloture rules if Democrats won’t agree to be obstructive only with the nominees they have a genuine concern over. McConnell should also put pressure on the eleven Republican senators who at various times have blocked Trump nominees from confirmation. Some of their objections are as pointless as those raised by Democrats.
But the fastest and most important change that’s necessary to staff the government is one from President Trump. Compared with President Bill Clinton’s administration at a similar point in his presidency, Trump’s personnel office has fewer than a fourth the number of staffers to process paperwork and interview applicants. Several of the offices at the personnel department are empty most of the day. This lack of resources reflects a lack of understanding in Trump and others that you can’t have a political revolution by waiting for the perfect nominee or by using players from the other team.
President Trump doesn’t see the urgency of this. He told Forbes magazine last October: “I’m generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be — because you don’t need them,” he said. “I mean, you look at some of these agencies, how massive they are, and it’s totally unnecessary. They have hundreds of thousands of people.”
Unless a president has appointees at the top who share his vision, ‘the swamp’ will always win.
Trump can say something so preposterous because for most of his life he ran a small, tightly held family company in which people could easily be shifted from one task to another at his whim. The federal government simply doesn’t work that way, and unless a president has appointees at the top who share his vision, “the swamp” will always win.
A top Republican strategist who has worked on several presidential personnel teams told me that the Trump administration is running a very weak personnel office:
It’s weak in every way. Lowest number of staff. Least experienced staff. Staff that didn’t support President Trump in 2016. You can blame the Senate for a lot, but that doesn’t excuse the other end of the pipeline. At this rate, we may have to wait for a Trump second term before key presidential appointments are filled.
Kori Schake, a research fellow in government management at the conservative Hoover Institution doesn’t mince words about the opportunity that the Trump White House is letting slip through its fingers. “The president risks looking like he appointed an admirable cabinet he intends to make ineffective by denying them staff.”
If President Trump doesn’t begin to pick up the pace of his appointments, expand the size of his presidential personnel office, and work out a way for Mitch McConnell to outflank Senate Democrats on their obstructionism, the results will be inescapable. He then might as well change his campaign slogan from “Make America Great Again” to “I Kept the Bureaucracy in Place.”