Senate holds take toll on Obama’s record with nominees

By Elizabeth Newell Jochum

April 21, 2010

While President Obama was ahead of his recent predecessors in terms of filling appointments at the 100-day mark, he has since fallen behind, according to a new think tank analysis.

At the one-year mark, Obama lagged behind the four previous presidents, the Center for American Progress found. The Obama administration had filled 64.4 percent of Senate-confirmed executive agency positions after one year, compared to 73.8 percent for the George W. Bush administration and 69.8 percent for the Clinton administration. Obama ranked last or second to last in successfully filling positions at 10 of 16 major federal agencies compared to his four most recent predecessors.

The Obama White House struggled to get even the highest level officials in place; it took until the end of April 2009 for the president to get all 15 of his Cabinet secretaries confirmed. Past presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all filled their Cabinets at least one month faster.

CAP found Senate delays contributed significantly to Obama's difficulty filling political positions. The Senate took an average of 60.8 days to confirm Obama's nominees in the first year, compared to 57.9 days for George W. Bush, 48.9 for Clinton and 51.5 for George H.W. Bush. The gap between the number of nominations and number of confirmations after one year was larger for Obama than for any other administration analyzed.

After a year in office, Obama had submitted 326 nominations. The Senate had confirmed 262 of them, leaving 64 pending. At the end of George W. Bush's first year, there were 46 nominations pending; there were only 29 in limbo at the close of Clinton's first year.

The progressive think tank warned that the Obama administration's leadership challenges will be intensified because, if history is an indicator, confirmed appointees will begin leaving their posts within the next year. The average tenure for Cabinet and executive agency appointees during the past two administrations was 2.5 years.

"If nothing is done, we will have considerable gaps in agency leadership," report author Anne Joseph O'Connell stated. "Even with faster Senate confirmation times in preceding administrations, top positions in Cabinet departments and executive agencies were empty or filled with acting officials between 15 and 25 percent of the time, on average, between 1977 and 2005. With a slowing Senate confirmation process, these figures presumably will only rise -- unless action is taken."

CAP issued a number of recommendations, both for the White House and the Senate, including requiring nominees to commit to staying for the president's full first term and encouraging the Senate to crack down on holds. In particular, the report criticizes holds unrelated to nominees' job fitness.

"If senators have complaints about the administration's policy judgments, they can take up those complaints most directly with the White House or less directly through committee hearings and the appropriations process, all of which are legitimate ways of expressing and enacting policy disagreements," O'Connell wrote. "Although they should be discouraged, holds involving concerns over an appointee's qualifications or statements to the Senate may be appropriate in certain circumstances."

On Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chastised fellow senators for using secret holds.

"If you want to put a hold on somebody, fine, that's your right as a senator," McCaskill said on the Senate floor. "But own it. You're here to do the people's business, and if you have an objection to a nominee you should tell the public you have that objection."

By Elizabeth Newell Jochum

April 21, 2010