Draining the swampy Washington bureaucracy is hard, and President Trump also is still having trouble filling his administration with appointees who share his vision for reshaping government.
As of mid-December, Mr. Trump had nominated 496 people for various posts in his administration. That is 140 fewer than President Obama nominated by the same point in his first year and 232 fewer than George W. Bush by the same date in his presidency.
Although he is behind on overall nominations, Mr. Trump is ahead of his predecessors on filling positions in departments such as Defense and Justice, showing his prioritizing of national security and law enforcement.
Senate confirmations of Mr. Trump’s executive branch nominees also are running far behind the paces of his predecessors. The Senate had confirmed 261 of the president’s nominees by mid-December, compared with 418 under Mr. Obama and 483 for Mr. Bush.
Some analysts say the slower pace of nominations and confirmations undermines Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.”
“This is really odd for somebody who promised to bring change to Washington — to leave the government empty, on autopilot,” said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. “You get the status quo. If you want to drain the swamp and change the vast federal government, you’ve got to get control of it in order to understand it.”
Tommy Binion, director of congressional and executive relations at The Heritage Foundation, said filling the posts is important partly because of the “deep state” bureaucracy that has been working to undermine Mr. Trump. The president and his top aides have warned about the problem since their first day in office.
“There is an administrative state, and in many instances it’s working against the Trump agenda,” Mr. Binion said. “And one of the most powerful weapons the president has to fight back against that is his ability to make these appointments.”
The White House and Senate Republicans blame Senate Democrats for blocking or delaying the president’s nominees across the board. For example, Senate Republican said, Democrats by the end of October had forced the Senate to take 47 cloture votes on nominees, compared with a total of six such votes at the same point for the four previous administrations combined.
Trump nominees also have taken an average of 16 days longer to confirm than comparable Obama nominees, Senate Republicans said.
“Clearly, it’s the Senate Democrats’ intent to obstruct his ability to effect the change that the voters wanted when they sent him here,” Mr. Binion said. “The Democrats are responsive to the ‘resist’ movement and all that goes with it. They’re refusing to allow the president to staff up his administration.”
Ms. Kamarck said all presidents encounter varying degrees of partisan gridlock in the Senate over nominees.
“What’s different about Trump is the absence of nominees,” she said. “That’s the real story. The dramatic thing here is how few people have been nominated.”
At least part of the nomination slowdown appears to be by design. At the State Department, which Mr. Trump has targeted for significant budget cuts, the president has nominated 84 political appointees, compared with 137 by Mr. Obama and 153 by Mr. Bush, according to data from the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
The president’s nominations to date also show an emphasis on agencies responsible for national security and law enforcement. At the Defense Department, Mr. Trump has nominated 44 appointees, compared with 38 for Mr. Obama in his first year.
At the Justice Department, Mr. Trump has nominated 89 people so far, compared with 58 for Mr. Obama.
The Departments of Labor, Education and Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency each has less than 25 percent of their political appointees in place.
Mr. Trump has said frequently that he is not trying to fill every open position in government.
“He’s going to cut back on some of those positions,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “We’ve been focused on some of the top priority places, and we’re going to continue filling out individuals.”
She said the administration is also running up against “a massive slowdown and obstruction by the Democrats.”
“Hopefully, they’ll continue to push our people through, particularly in individuals that were held up, whether it’s in the judiciary or something that falls under the national defense profile,” Mrs. Sanders said.
Said Mr. Binion, “Certainly I think the White House would admit that they wish the pace of their nominations were quicker. They want to be able to fill those roles. But not every single government agency is a priority to fill. I think you’re seeing this White House focus on those positions that are a priority.”
Judges were the bright spot in Mr. Trump’s first year of nominations. The president took a more emphatic step than most of his predecessors in filling judicial vacancies to reshape federal courts with lifetime appointments of younger, more conservative judges.
By mid-December, Mr. Trump had nominated 59 people for federal judgeships. Of those, 19 were confirmed, including Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and a record 12 circuit court judges.
Mr. Obama had three circuit court judges confirmed in his first year; George W. Bush had six.
The slower pace of executive branch nominations also raises questions about the federal Vacancies Act. After Nov. 15, any statutory authority vested in an “acting” government official devolved to the agency’s head, with a few exceptions. Decisions made by an acting official after that deadline are not legally valid.
“The problem is there is not a lot of experience with the Vacancies Act,” Ms. Kamarck said. “No other [president] has left this many important offices vacant for this period of time. We’ve never had a president who has gotten himself into this situation.”
Ms. Kamarck said another reason for the slow pace of nominations is likely that Mr. Trump came to Washington as a true outsider who had no ties to the previous Republican administrations. In fact, he and the Bush family have expressed open hostility toward each other over the years.
“Usually when a new president goes to staff a government, they end up relying on a pool of people who have served the previous Republican or Democratic president,” she said. “With Trump, the pool of Republicans that had experience were of course the George W. Bush people. Not only had he defeated his brother [Jeb] in the primaries, but the hostility between the Bushes and the Trumps has continued. Add to that he doesn’t come out of a world where he got to know very many government people, and it may be that the pool they’re comfortable with is just very small.”
• Dave Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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