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Almost One Year In: Biden’s Track Record on Nominations and Confirmations

The process underscores the challenges with so many positions needing Senate confirmation, the Partnership for Public Service said in a new report. 

The process to get President Biden’s appointees in place during his first year in office underscores the challenges with so many positions needing Senate confirmation, according to a new report. 

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition released a report on Monday about Biden’s nominations and confirmations from January 20, 2021 (Inauguration Day) to December 31, 2021. Early on, the Senate got off to a slow start in taking up Biden’s nominations due to the Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January 2021, impeachment proceedings and prioritization of the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Another obstacle was Republican senators placing holds on certain nominees. 

“Our analysis of Biden’s progress with nominations and confirmations in his first year indicates that the current number of positions needing Senate confirmation continues to lead to a confirmation logjam that grows each year,” said the report. “The holdup has limited the ability of administrations to fill critical roles and undermines the effectiveness of the American government.” From 1960 to 2016 the number of Senate-confirmed positions increased by 59%, which has been coupled with “challenges in the confirmation process.” 

By December 31, 2021, Biden had nominated 644 individuals for presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed positions, which was more than President Trump had (555) and slightly fewer than President Obama (653) and President George W. Bush (677). This encompasses all civilian nominations submitted to the Senate including judges, marshals and U.S. attorneys. 

“Despite nominating roughly the same number of appointees as Bush and Obama, far fewer of Biden’s nominees were confirmed in the same time frame,” said the report. “Congress has confirmed 355 of Biden’s nominees. At a comparable time, Congress had confirmed 505 of Bush’s and 450 of Obama’s. Trump, by contrast, had slightly fewer with 317.” 

After nearly one year in office, it took an average of 103 days for Biden’s nominees to get confirmed, which was longer than the average for nominees in the past six administrations and about three times as long as that of President Reagan’s first year. 

Meanwhile, there are “historic levels of gender and racial/ethnic diversity among the Biden confirmed appointees,” said a report by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, nonresident senior fellow for governance studies at the Brookings Institution, on the administration’s 300-day mark, which came in November.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki opened her December 20 briefing by saying, “President Biden has nominated, and the Senate has confirmed the most diverse class of federal judges in history at a rate not seen since President Reagan.” 

Across the Cabinet, the departments with the highest percentage of Senate-confirmed officials in place by the end of 2021 were: Veterans Affairs (85% of nominees) and Homeland Security (65% of nominees). Meanwhile, the ones with the lowest percentage were Transportation (33%) and Housing and Urban Development (38%). 

As for the 173 key Senate-confirmed positions in the national security arena, Biden nominated 126 (85 of whom were confirmed and 41 of whom were awaiting Senate action) as of December 31; 31 of the positions had no nominees and 16 were filled by holdovers.

This past year was the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, after which “the bipartisan 9/11 Commission suggested delays in confirmations could undermine the country’s safety since a lack of appointments could significantly disrupt national security policymaking,” the report noted. 

“From the more than 160 key Senate-confirmed ambassadorships to countries and multilateral organizations, Biden made 88 nominations, outpacing Trump’s 63 nominations but falling behind Obama’s 107 nominations and Bush’s 115,” said the report. “In 2021, the Senate confirmed only 55 ambassadors nominated by Biden (63%), the lowest confirmation rate in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, 90% of Bush’s first-year ambassadorial nominations were confirmed during the same period, and 85% of Obama’s and 75% of Trump’s nominations were confirmed.”

Per Senate rules, nominations are returned to the president when they haven’t been confirmed or were rejected when the Senate adjourns for the end of a congressional session, which is about the end of a calendar year, or if the Senate adjourns for more than 30 days. However, nominations can be held over if the Senate agrees by unanimous consent to suspend the rules, and the president can submit the nominees during the new session, the report said. 

The Senate returned 118 nominations to the White House on January 3, which included the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and controller at the Office of Management and Budget, both of which haven’t had a confirmed leader in about five years. They have both been renominated, among many others. 

The Partnership has been bringing a critical eye to the increasing number of Senate-confirmed positions for years now.

In 2011, it supported the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, which decreased the number of Senate-confirmed positions by 163. Then the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition published a report in August 2021 that recommended seven possible reforms to the Senate’s approach to confirmed positions. 

During the White House briefing on January 4, a reporter asked about Biden’s confirmations during his first year, which reflected the Partnership and Washington Post’s tracker for executive branch civilian positions requiring Senate confirmation except for judges, marshals and U.S. attorneys. At the time, Biden had 266 of those individuals confirmed, which was about on par with Trump during that point in his first year, but about 100 fewer than what Obama and George W. Bush each had, the reporter noted. 

Psaki said that by the end of 2021, over 300 of Biden’s nominees were pending in the Senate and about half were on the Senate’s executive calendar awaiting a vote. There was “overwhelming support and majorities from Democrats and Republicans,” for many nominees, but there were “lengthy debates” in the Senate for many when “there could have been unanimous consent votes,” she said. 

“Obviously, there are career employees ensuring effectively that agencies are running,” Psaki continued. “But, of course, [Biden] wants to have his team in place—his people leading these agencies to continue to move his agenda forward.

When asked if the president thinks the Senate should spend more time taking up his nominations, Psaki said, “I think there's a way to move them forward without consuming hours and hours and days of floor time.” The White House was “encouraged by the agreement that happened right before the winter holiday to move a number of nominees forward. And we're hopeful we can push more forward in the weeks ahead.”

On the 141 positions for which Biden had not put forth a nominee by the holidays, Psaki said he “is eager to have these nominees he has nominated confirmed” and “wants to find the right person” to fill them.