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President Donald Trump talks with reporters in the Oval Office March 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) President Donald Trump talks with reporters in the Oval Office March 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump talks with reporters in the Oval Office March 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

John Kruzel
By John Kruzel March 16, 2018

Why Trump appointments have lagged behind other presidents

President Donald Trump has long blamed Democrats for moving his nominees through the Senate confirmation process at a sluggish pace.

"Hundreds of good people, including very important ambassadors and judges, are being blocked and/or slow walked by the Democrats in the Senate," Trump tweeted March 14. "Many important positions in government are unfilled because of this obstruction."

We ran the numbers, and Trump is certainly right on one count: Important government posts are empty.

But allocating blame is more complicated than Trump suggests. Democrats bear some responsibility, but so do Senate Republicans and the Trump White House.

By the numbers

Compared with recent presidents, Trump has had the fewest nominees confirmed to date, according to the White House.

Trump has also had the smallest percent of nominees confirmed by the Senate at this point in his presidency, relative to recent predecessors. Only 57 percent of Trump’s nominees have been confirmed, below that of Presidents Barack Obama (67 percent), George W. Bush (78 percent), Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush (each with 81 percent).

The Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that tracks political appointees, also found that Trump has seen fewer confirmations than recent presidents at this point. At an average rate of 81 days per confirmation, Trump’s nominees have also experienced significantly more lag time than those appointed by recent presidents.

Of the roughly 1,200 positions that require Senate confirmation, the Partnership for Public Service has identified 640 "key positions" (excluding judicial and military appointments). Its latest data shows 144 key Trump nominees currently await Senate confirmation.

So key government positions are unfilled. But who deserves the blame?

Procedural combat

Historically, senators routinely confirmed lower-level presidential nominees without much fanfare. But more recently, the Senate confirmation process has become a partisan battleground.

In 2013, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a measure to weaken Republicans’ ability to filibuster Obama’s nominees. Republicans responded with procedural combat. Now Democrats have answered in kind, putting even non-controversial nominees through the procedural gamut.

Under the 2013 rule change, the number of votes required to break a filibuster of presidential nominees — through a process called cloture — was lowered from 60 to a simple majority of 51.

But minority parties adopted new tactics. For instance, once the majority party breaks a filibuster through cloture, the minority party is allowed 30 additional hours of post-cloture debate — a procedural maneuver Democrats can use to drain the clock and bog down the confirmation process.

"Floor time is the most precious commodity in the Senate and majority leaders are loath to lose time on nominations unless they are critical," said Ian Ostrander, a political science professor at Michigan State University. "The majority party must now triage its nominations by prioritizing which ones are worth spending the time on."

According to the White House, Democrats have forced 78 cloture votes on Trump’s nominees.

But experts stressed that not all Democratic obstruction should be viewed as simple partisan warfare. Legitimate concerns have surrounded some Trump nominees’ qualifications.

They also noted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could keep the Senate in session for more hours in order to mitigate the Democrats’ use of the cloture process.

Democrat, Republican ‘holds’

Another procedural hurdle facing Trump nominees is the Senate "hold."

The Senate generally operates on the principle of unanimous consent, so a single senator may seek to hold up an executive nominee by withholding consent. Ultimately, the decision to honor a hold request is up to the majority leader.

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Senate leaders typically grant these requests because to deny a hold creates alternative avenues for the senator to expend scarce floor time, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Not surprisingly, Democrats have made use of this tactic. But Republican senators have also issued a significant number of holds as a way to extract concessions on various policy issues. (It’s difficult to make a systematic tally of which party is behind these delays because senators are not always required to publicly disclose holds.)

One analysis found that of the eight published objections in 2017, four came from Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa. More intraparty holds have been placed in recent months, Politico reported in February, with at least 11 Republican senators publicly blocking nominees for the Energy, State and Justice departments, among other agencies.

David Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, pointed to the example of Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who has held up Justice Department nominees over differences with the Trump administration on marijuana policy.

"It is certainly true that Democrats have used their institutional prerogatives to slow things down," Lewis said. "That said, Republicans have as well."

White House role

Ultimately, Trump shares the blame for the slimmed down federal workforce, experts said.

As a starting point, it’s fair to ask how committed Trump is to staffing the government. The Partnership for Public Service, which tracks political appointees, notes that more than 200 key positions don’t even have nominees.

Trump himself has suggested an understaffed bureaucracy might be more of a feature rather than a defect of his administration. He told Forbes in an October 2017 interview:

"I'm generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be — because you don't need them," he says. "I mean, you look at some of these agencies, how massive they are, and it's totally unnecessary. They have hundreds of thousands of people."

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said whether Trump wants to fill out his ranks is a central question.

"Trump doesn't necessarily believe in government, hence less pressure to fill slots," Loomis said.

Yet even Trump’s good faith efforts to make executive appointments have been poorly managed, experts said.

"He was slow out of the gate, and his vetting was poor due to poor planning and a poorly run Office of Presidential Personnel," Lewis said. "The president’s missteps early meant that he was always going to play catch up."

Trump did nothing to smooth the process by alienating Democrats early on, Ostrander said.

"One of Trump’s first acts as president was to ignore Democratic Party input and push through several controversial cabinet nominees as well as (Neil) Gorsuch for the Supreme Court," Ostrander said. "While President Trump broke no rules in doing so, these actions made Democrats in the Senate far less interested in working with the administration on future nominations."

Experts noted that some of the delay is the result of legitimate concerns about Trump nominee qualifications and conflicts of interest, which has led to heightened scrutiny.

"If the president were nominating persons with impeccable credentials, no conflicts of interest, and broad support, there would be not concerns about delays," Lewis said. "Instead, the president is choosing non-traditional nominees with complex financial holdings and often less expertise than they need."

While Trump generally earned poor marks for his approach to bureaucratic nominations, his staffing of federal courts tells another story entirely. In this area, Trump has been energetic.

Trump appointed more circuit court judges in his first year than any president in history, and ranked sixth overall in first-year federal judge appointments (trial court, appeals court and Supreme Court combined).

Experts attributed this to better coordination between the White House and Senate on judges than executive appointments. Some suggested Republicans have simply made judicial appointments a higher priority.

"I believe that Trump and his allies in the Senate have made the (correct) calculation that judicial nominations are simply worth more in the long run," Ostrander said.

Our ruling

Trump said Democratic obstruction is the reason why "many important positions in government are unfilled."

There’s a lot of blame to go around for the federal government’s relatively modest headcount. Senate Democrats, adopting the upper chamber’s new norms, have engaged in procedural combat. Yet Senate Republicans have also held up Trump’s nominees to extract concessions. Finally, the Trump White House earns generally low marks for its approach to executive appointments.

We rate this Half True.

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Says Democratic obstruction is the reason why "many important positions in government are unfilled."
in a tweet
Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Our Sources

Tweet by Donald Trump, March 14, 2018

White House fact sheet on nominations, March 14, 2018

The Partnership for Public Service in collaboration with the Washington Post, "Tracking how many key positions Trump has filled so far"

Los Angeles Times, "Trump appointing judges at rapid pace," Jan. 19, 2018

New York Times, "Democrats Perfect Art of Delay While Republicans Fume Over Trump Nominees," July 17, 2017

White House press release, "What You Need to Know About Obstruction of the President’s Nominees," Feb. 23, 2018

Congressional Research Service, " ‘Holds’ in the Senate," Jan. 24, 2017

Politico, "GOP friendly fire imperils Trump nominees," Feb. 8, 2018

Axios, "Trump has now appointed most ever federal appeals judges in 1st year," Dec. 14, 2017

Email interview with David Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, March 14, 2018

Email interview with Ian Ostrander, a political science professor at Michigan State University, March 14, 2018

Email interview with Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, March 14, 2018

Email interview with Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, March 14, 2018

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