President Trump told the Washington Examiner’s Sarah Westwood last month that despite people carping about him not hiring staff for his administration, some vacancies at federal agencies would actually remain unfilled.
“We don’t need so many people coming to work,” Trump said. “When they talk about putting people in, there are so many jobs in Washington. We don’t want so many jobs. You don’t need all of those people.”
At the end of Trump’s first 100 days, only 27 of 556 political appointments had been confirmed, as compared with 69 for former President Barack Obama and 35 for former President George W. Bush.
If blame is appropriate, there’s plenty of it to go around. The administration blames Democrats for slow-rolling nominees. But Democrats and some Republicans counter that the White House isn’t sending names quickly enough. And a handful of nominees have taken themselves out of contention, mostly because of their various business interests. Since the president likes hiring business leaders, that’s proving no small problem.
The lack of confirmed appointees means agencies are severely limited in the scope of their policy action, whether it’s enacting changes made by Congress or following through on dozens of executive orders Trump has signed.
Let’s look at all the things the new administration can’t do and won’t be able to do until it gets those top jobs filled.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a severe shortage of political appointees at Foggy Bottom and pressure is building to fill vacancies.
“My sense is the big things are getting done,” said the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano, who handled State Department issues on Trump’s transition team, “[but] you can’t sustain this much longer.”
Tillerson, along with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, is one of two political appointees at the State Department to receive Senate confirmation. That’s not even a skeleton crew for a geopolitical moment that Russia believes inaugurates a “post-West world order” and in which China seeks to dominate the western Pacific, North Korea’s rogue regime is accelerating its quest for nuclear weapons, and terrorist threats in Africa and the Middle East threaten to spark refugee crises.
Tillerson, who led Exxon Mobil before joining the Trump team, has addressed these crises with diplomatic meetings, supported by career professionals.
“There are senior State Department officials serving in acting capacities, but these folks are seasoned veterans of the Foreign Service and seasoned diplomats,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in April. “I know many of them personally, and I can speak — attest to their expertise and their professionalism.”
Carafano gave them high marks for helping Tillerson with top-tier agenda items. “They pretty much did a complete North Korea review in, basically, less than a week on North Korea policy,” he said. Analyses of policy toward the Islamic State and Afghanistan are also underway.
Career officials are playing this major role for political and substantive reasons. Trump vetoed Tillerson’s first choice of deputy secretary of State because he criticized Trump during the campaign. Tillerson, for his part, is choosing his team methodically while developing a plan to reorganize State and reportedly cut 2,300 jobs.
“If the secretary is holding up because he wants a clear idea of how he wants the department structured, I’m OK with that,” Carafano said. “He’s got a department that he’s probably going to be running for at least four years, and people are policy, and it’s a lot easier to get it right at the start.”
If that takes too long, however, then foreign policy issues that are important but not urgent could fall through the cracks or be decided without the traditional degree of State Department input. “The State Department view is not being expressed in a lot of rooms where policy is actually being created,” as one senior Senate Republican aide put it.
Carafano concurred that the current team doesn’t have the bandwidth to address the full spectrum of U.S. foreign policy issues. Trump’s administration did little to take advantage of American chairmanship of the Arctic Council before handing the post to Finland, Carafano observed, a missed opportunity at a time when Russia is conducting a military buildup in the region. And “there’s any number of international meetings coming up,” such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in November, that will require the attention of a broader team of political leaders at the State Department.
“They are going to get to the point here where the lack of depth to work the breadth of policy issues is catching up to them,” Carafano said. “By the time the summer’s rolling around, they’ve got to be bringing more people in.”
The Department of Defense is unique among federal agencies in that it alone has an entirely parallel workforce that does not change with administrations, namely the armed forces.
So the Pentagon can function with few or no political appointees in place, which is a good thing, considering that only one of the 53 Pentagon political political appointees that require Senate confirmation is in place so far, and that is Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Nine others have been nominated.
The Pentagon actually has two civilian leaders requiring confirmation, Mattis and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, an Obama administration holdover who has agreed to stay on until his successor is confirmed. Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan has been nominated for the job.
So with 52 positions vacant, only the biggest, most pressing needs are getting the full attention of the secretary.
“There’s very little going on in terms of policy guidance and strategic development,” said Nora Bensahel a military analyst at American University’s School of International Service. “It also means there are going to be no grand changes in policy because all of the political positions that are now vacant, many of those are being filled by acting members of the civil service.”
It also means the military leaders have much more sway in how policies are shaped because there is little in the way of civilian oversight.