The new Democrat-controlled Senate has confirmed just 29 percent of President Bush’s nominations so far this year, leaving many government agencies without key officials and slowing work to a crawl in some departments.
Since Jan. 7, the president has sent 229 major nominations to the Senate, but just 66 have been confirmed. Those figures exclude U.S. attorneys, marshals and judges, but the White House says those nominations also have an alarmingly low confirmation rate — just 18 of the 46 (39 percent) sent to the Senate this year have been approved.
The confirmation rate is far below that of the first six months of 1995, when the White House was occupied by a Democrat and Republicans had just taken over the House and Senate. Back then, President Clinton sent up 188 nominations between January and June, winning approval for 112 — a 60 percent confirmation rate.
While some of the pending nominations are lower-level employees at lesser-known agencies, dozens of important positions remain unfilled. Among them are the secretary of the Army; the Energy undersecretary for nuclear security; assistant secretaries of Defense, Homeland Security and Labor; and the Treasury undersecretary.
“As a nation at war, it is critical that senior leadership positions at the Department of Defense are filled in an expeditious manner,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. “The Senate plays a vital role with regards to the confirmation process, and we will continue to work closely with senators to fill these critical positions.”
The White House agrees. “It really is debilitating,” said one former senior administration official, who asked not to be identified. “What happens when, say, the assistant secretary isn’t there? All the decisions get punted until that person arrives. All the personnel decisions get punted.
“It really has a crippling effect on the agency. There’s no excuse for not getting this done,” the former official said.
A confirmation slowdown is not unexpected near the end of a president’s term as members of the opposite party seek to leave positions open in hopes of having their own president make the nominations, said Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University. But the low rate so far this year also “reflects the president’s declining political capital of the administration in Congress,” he said.
Still, the vacancies wreak havoc on agencies, Mr. Light said. He headed up the Brookings Institution’s Presidential Appointee Initiative, which kept track of Mr. Bush’s confirmation rate during the first few years of his presidency.
“It freezes action at the career level. … If you’re in an agency where you want accelerated action, like Justice or Treasury or Homeland Security, the vacancies are quite significant in terms of stopping things from happening that you want to happen,” he said.
The White House has urged leading Democrats — including those in charge of panels that must confirm presidential nominees — to act swiftly. “We are obviously pleased with the action that some committees have taken, but others have not moved quite as fast as we would like,” said assistant press secretary Emily Lawrimore.
Tracy Schmaler, spokeswoman for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, where more than a dozen nominations have languished since the beginning of the year, said the committee is moving quickly through the process.
“Under Chairman Leahy, the committee has actually moved out more nominees” than during the chairmanship of Senators Orrin G. Hatch or Arlen Specter, she said, referring to Republican senators from Utah and Pennsylvania, respectively.
Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said a slow confirmation rate is likely for the rest of Mr. Bush’s days in the White House.
“The fact is in a narrowly divided Senate with an unpopular war and just as many unhappy Republicans, nominations will be used as leverage from now to the end of the Bush presidency. It is one of the few ways, if any, that can be used to move the Bush administration.”
But Mr. Light expects Mr. Bush to use his power to bypass Senate confirmation when the chamber is in recess. Mr. Bush has taken some heat for making such “recess appointments,” but once the nominees are in the positions, they will remain there until January 2009.
“What I expect to see is this administration will recess in a number of appointees this summer and certainly will recess in a very large number after Congress goes out in November,” he said.
Making light of the situation, he said with a laugh: “You’ll have more people on recess in the administration than on a kindergarten playground.”