The Senate’s willingness to confirm a president's nominees took a downward turn during Donald Trump’s first year in office. And it has only gotten worse for President Joe Biden.
About 36% of Biden's nominees have been confirmed so far in the evenly divided Senate, a deterioration from the paltry 38% success rate that Trump saw at the same stage of his presidency. Their predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both saw about two-thirds of their nominees confirmed through Oct. 21, according to tracking by the Partnership for Public Service.
The trend is alarming to good government advocates, who say Washington's ability to meet mounting challenges is being undermined by gaps in leadership. But the slow-walking shows no signs of letting up as senators place holds on a wide swath of nominees to gain leverage and attract public attention.
Political coverage from NBC4.
Among the most notable examples:
—Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has placed holds on several State and Treasury nominees over a pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany. He wants the Biden administration to implement sanctions to stop it.
—Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., had placed holds on all Department of Homeland Security nominees until Vice President Kamala Harris visited the U.S.-Mexico border.
—Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he will not consent to the nomination of any Defense or State Department nominees until the secretaries of those departments resign for the troubled withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The holds don’t prevent nominees from being confirmed, but they force extra steps in a Senate that already moves at a leisurely pace. The backup burns through time on the Senate calendar and forces Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to make tough choices about what will see a vote.
While gridlock isn't new, the struggle to staff administrations is getting worse. During the first nine months of the Bush and Obama administrations, the Senate required fewer than 10% of their nominees to advance through time-hogging cloture votes aimed at limiting debate. But Democrats increased that to 40% under Trump. Republicans have responded in kind, ramping it up to more than 50% under Biden, according to White House data.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there have been “unprecedented delays, obstruction, holds on qualified individuals from Republicans in the Senate." And that, she said, is thwarting the confirmation of ambassadors and economic and national security officials.
“The blame is clear," Psaki said. "It is frustrating."
Holds tell only part of the story, though. The number of positions requiring Senate confirmation keeps growing — from fewer than 800 when Dwight Eisenhower was president to more than 1,200 now. That means more competition for the Senate's time and attention.
“Our system is broken,” said Max Stier, the CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. “We have a Senate that was designed for a different era, the equivalent of the country road and the world around it has become a major urban center and it can’t manage the traffic that is now trying to go down it.”
Stier’s organization provides information and training aimed at making government employees more effective. He said delays in filling key government posts make it harder to respond to problems such as the pandemic, the economic fallout that came from it, climate change and foreign threats such as those from China, Russia and North Korea.
“We face an extraordinary set of challenges and our government is our one tool as a society to deal with these big problems,” Stier said.
His organization recommends that Congress reduce the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation and give nominees a quicker vote.
“There are legitimate reasons why the Senate would reject a nominee," Stier said. “But the key point here is they ought to be giving them the up-and-down vote fast — not what is happening now."
Senators seem unlikely to relent. Holding up a nominee is a rare chance to gain the administration’s attention and perhaps change its course of action. At other times, it gives them an opportunity to make a statement that resonates with their party's voters.
Cruz has been a longtime opponent of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which he says will increase Europe’s reliance on Russia for its energy. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russian companies and ships for their work on the project, but opted not to punish the German company overseeing it.
Cruz's office said the senator is committed to using whatever leverage he has to force “mandatory sanctions."
“He believes that those sanctions can still prevent Nord Stream 2 from coming online and that the Biden administration can be convinced to implement them,” Cruz’s office said.
Hawley, meanwhile, has demanded that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resign because of the “botched Afghanistan withdrawal."
“Until there is accountability, the least we can do is actually vote for nominees to leadership positions at the State Department and Department of Defense," Hawley said in a statement.
Without the holds, the nominees could be confirmed through a voice vote, a process taking only minutes that can be used so long as no senators object. That's how more than 90% of nominees were confirmed at similar stages of the Bush and Obama presidencies.
There is one bright spot for Biden. He is eclipsing other presidents when it comes to confirming judicial nominees. The Senate has confirmed 16 district and circuit court judges as of Oct, 13, matching the combined total for Bush, Obama and Trump by that date.
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the Brookings Institution noted that Obama was criticized for not moving quickly enough on judges. “It's clear to me the Biden people have learned from that mistake," she said.
“I mean, would you rather have life-tenured people get through or would you have people who are going to probably stay on average for 18 to 24 months in these jobs?" Tenpas said.
During the Trump presidency, it was Republicans who voiced frustration with Democratic tactics to slow the confirmation process. Republican leader Mitch McConnell, then the majority leader, led a change in the chamber's rules that shrank how long the chamber could debate a nominee.
In recent weeks, McConnell has repeatedly criticized Democrats for dedicating so much of the Senate's time to what he described as “mid-level nominations." Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., scoffed at the criticism.
“The reason we have to go through every step, dot every I, cross every T and listen to interminable speeches unrelated to the nominee is his caucus's decision to slow this process down," Durbin said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the confirmation process has been a problem for both parties serving in the majority “when everything is so polarized around here."
“I'm hoping this is just an ugly phase," he said.
Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.