Why Are So Many Government Positions Still Vacant?



Speaking of the last administration, how does President Biden’s record compare with Donald Trump’s?

The Biden team is ahead in their nominations of where Trump was at this point in time, but they’re actually neck and neck in the number of confirmed people.

It’s easy to see why the Senate could be a roadblock for confirmations, but what explains the lag in nominations?

There’s an interrelationship between the two. One of the challenges any administration faces is thinking about the likelihood of getting people confirmed. A difficult confirmation process impacts the nomination process. There’s a lot of risk aversion. And, frankly, their ability to recruit is hurt. Think about all the people who would throw in their hat knowing they’ll be a part of that cool-your-jet package. Everything you do gets scrutinized enormously, and you have to be thoughtful and careful about what you should be doing that might get you in trouble.

And to add a complication, a current nominee can’t also serve as the acting leader, according to a relatively recent Supreme Court decision. For example, if the Biden administration nominated Janet Woodcock to serve as the F.D.A. commissioner, she would have to step down from her present role as acting commissioner. Congress should fix this.

Which agencies worry you the most?

I think the State Department is plainly one of the most obvious places with significant gaps. Of the positions we track, the State Department has the most gaps of any agency. But the truth is, you only have 127 confirmed positions, so there are problems pretty much everywhere. The most noticeable ones are the places where there are current, obvious needs. So, there’s the international issues, whether it’s Afghanistan or China. You think about health care, where the lack of a confirmed F.D.A. commissioner is clearly a problem.

The Office of Management and Budget director is not as obvious, but I think it is a truly fundamental role. There is very little in the federal government that is focused on the enterprise as a whole, but the Office of Management and Budget is. It’s a tiny agency when you think about the entire government, but it’s the nerve center, and to not have a confirmed director is a problem.

Let’s take Afghanistan as a case study. How does the lack of confirmed positions hurt us there?

It’s impossible to show a causal relationship, but we don’t have an ambassador to Afghanistan, and while ambassadors aren’t everything, they are your key point of contact in any given country. And yes, there are plenty of people involved in Afghanistan, but you’d want every resource you could possibly have, and that’s one of them. I’m looking at the list of unconfirmed positions that might be needed over there: under secretary for public diplomacy, there’s no nominee. Assistant secretary for conflict and stabilization operations. There’s someone nominated and been reported out, but they’re waiting. Not good. The list goes on. There will be someone there, but they’re in acting capacities. That’s just not a recipe for the best we need for our agencies.


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