As the Senate returns to work this week, its votes on key White House appointees will determine how quickly the administrative state can turn economic policy on its head. Headlines are grabbed, of course, by individuals such as Neera Tanden heading agencies, but the functioning of the Biden administration will depend crucially on how fast political appointees up and down the food chain within the agencies can move through the process. A key consideration for Republicans will be whether they should plan to follow the Democrats’ playbook of stonewalling and delaying every Trump nominee in an unprecedented manner. If they do, it might slow the harmful regulations the Biden team plans to cast hither and yon.
It would be hard to blame Republicans if they took that tack. After all, from the moment Trump took office, Senate Democrats pledged to oppose virtually all his nominees. The Senate rules allowed them to extend debate on each nominee until Republicans invoked a cloture vote to end the debate. At the beginning of the Trump administration, Senate rules required that a cloture vote be preceded by 30 hours of debate, which took up precious floor time and stalled legislation while undermining Trump’s ability to govern. In practice, the rule meant that the Senate could confirm only a handful of nominees each week, and since Mitch McConnell prioritized judicial nominees, the Trump administration was left without a full team in place for virtually the entire term.
Late last fall, I asked the White House personnel office to give me the tally on how their nominees had fared in the Senate. They reported to me that as of December 1, 2020, 357 Trump nominees still required cloture votes. In the past, senators for the most part recognized that our government can function only if they allow cabinet officers to assemble a team of deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries, and so on. It was viewed as a noble calling to serve, and the idea of torturing the 20th person down the totem pole was unthinkable. During the entire Obama administration, the personnel office reported that only 17 nominees were held up in such a manner. Such restraint was a bipartisan tradition. During the Bush administration, only four nominees faced hurdles of this type.
In my own case, after being chosen for the job of chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in January 2017, I was not confirmed until September of that year, despite the fact that, as the vote eventually indicated, I had the support of the majority of Senate Democrats. I did start in the White House as a consultant long before then and remember discussing the long delays in the Roosevelt Room in the summer of 2017 with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who mentioned that she couldn’t get any of her deputies through. If the majority leader’s wife is having trouble, the obstructions are real.
Ultimately, Republicans reduced the number of hours of debate required before cloture to two, but the Senate minority availed itself of other tactics, such as delaying nomination hearings. Countless low-level nominees were forced to withdraw because they saw no reasonable path to confirmation. Those who stuck it out just waited and waited. As of December 1 of last year, there were 209 Trump nominees still pending in the Senate.
When I left the council in the summer of 2019, with a year and a half left for the team to govern, the White House didn’t even bother trying to get my replacement, Tomas Philipson, a confirmation. Eighteen months was apparently not enough time to get him through. If you looked around the government, a large majority of jobs were held by people who were simply “acting,” a temporary status allowed for vacant positions.
The headlines this week will be focused on the top-level appointees, but the crucial decision facing senators pertains to lower-level appointees. One can, perhaps, forgive a minority party for playing the best cards they have. No matter how many assurances one gets from Majority Leader Schumer, one can be sure that the nominees that the next Republican president puts forward will face the same gantlet.
It might be tempting to obstruct President Biden’s policies by opposing all of his personnel, but our Founding Fathers envisioned a world where the victor gets to govern, and if his policies fail, the voters can hold him accountable. Nominees with controversial positions and statements should, by all means, be rejected. But the assistant secretary of this or that office is necessary to make the government work.
So, even though I am quite confident that President Biden’s regulatory plans are mostly a disaster, if I were in the Senate, here is the deal I would offer my moderate Democratic colleagues: If they promised to be especially tough on the top-level political appointees, and not rally around the most controversial ones, I would agree to allow the ones that are confirmed to build their teams as quickly as possible.
This path will likely not be taken, and many on the right will celebrate that. But if we don’t correct course, few will be foolish enough to try to serve the country.