Anticipating Senate bottlenecks, Biden plans a nomination workaroundDecember 2, 2020
Now that he’s chosen a big chunk of his Cabinet nominees, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team is focusing increasingly on selecting candidates for government positions that do not require Senate confirmation.
Concerned about Republicans slow-walking confirmation hearings for Cabinet appointees and hollowed-out federal agencies, Biden and his aides are eager to place mid- to lower-level officials across the federal government, particularly in national security roles, to ensure his administration can begin to enact his agenda immediately, according to three people familiar with the situation.
By quickly selecting candidates for slots that don’t require Senate confirmation, such as deputy assistant secretaries, the transition team also can try to ensure that many of those hired can obtain security clearances by the time Biden takes office.
The shift in focus to filling positions that do not require confirmation reflects the urgency with which the Biden team sees its staffing conundrum — especially in the realm of national security, where there’s little room for error. It also signals Biden’s anxiousness to replace Trump appointees and fill long-empty positions as soon as possible so he can enact his agenda.
The strategy is an explicit effort to overcome a common hurdle of the early months of a new administration: The middle tier of political appointees often don’t take up their posts until well into the first year.
“You get into this weird situation where a lot of times you’ll have the top people confirmed and in place basically right away and the non-confirmed people at a whole lower level,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. Those in between “can take literally months to get through the confirmation process.”
The Biden transition team is also considering asking former government officials, such as retired diplomats, to come in and fill key positions on an acting basis until the nominees for those jobs are confirmed by the Senate, according to a fourth person familiar with the situation. That could prove legally complicated, but it’s not impossible, some Foreign Service veterans said. (A person involved in the transition noted that retired officials are welcome to throw in their hats for jobs beyond those that require confirmation.)
“For months, the transition focused on identifying critical positions for the immediate and successful execution of the Biden-Harris agenda, analyzing each federal agency from the ground up,” Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the transition, said in a statement. “We are working with both parties in Congress to confirm qualified, experienced nominees while hiring senior agency leaders to be ready on Day One to overcome the pandemic and the recession while safeguarding American national security.”
Two run-off elections in Georgia will determine who controls the Senate, though those results won’t be known until on or after Jan. 5. The Biden team appears to be planning ahead as if Republicans will prevail and keep the chamber.
The heightened sense of urgency follows a weeks-long period in which the Trump administration refused to recognize Biden’s victory, a process known as “ascertainment.” Foreign policy experts had expressed alarm over the delay, warning it could have dangerous consequences.
The Biden team is aiming to replace “every political appointee of Trump immediately,” with a particular emphasis on national security positions, said a former U.S. official involved in the transition. “They have people identified all the way down to the [deputy assistant secretary] level.”
Biden has promised to hire a diverse group of people, and that commitment will extend to the mid- and lower-level ranks, one of the people familiar with the situation said. The person added that Biden and his aides are keenly aware that many career civil servants — who were accused by the Trump administration of being members of a disloyal “deep state” — are eager to be considered for promotions and will be weighing those desires as well.
Even within the transition team, many of the decisions on hiring are treated on a confidential basis, with only a few people involved. A “staffing unit” has been set up to vet candidates, and a person familiar with the situation described it as a “black box.” That’s partly by design because of the sensitivities that surround any hiring process. One person familiar with the situation noted, however, that it also eases awkwardness given that so many people volunteering for or otherwise on the transition team are competing against one another for jobs.
Lisa Monaco and Suzy George, both veterans of the Barack Obama administration’s national security teams, play key roles in overseeing personnel decisions, according to a person involved in the transition. Yohannes Abraham is also heavily involved in personnel in addition to Gautam Raghavan and Stephanie Valencia, according to another person involved in the transition.
Biden has yet to select nominees for director of the CIA and secretary of Defense, despite rolling out other senior members of his national security team. The leading candidate for the Pentagon job, Michèle Flournoy, previously served as an undersecretary for policy there.
In an interview posted earlier this year with the Transition Lab podcast, Flournoy said hiring underlings was a top priority when she arrived at the Pentagon in the first months of the Obama administration, and that she was fortunate to get confirmed early because she had the “pick of the litter” in building her team.
“At every free moment — and at night — I was looking at resumes and trying to make decisions,” she said. “The easiest thing was to hire the deputy assistant secretaries and below because they did not require Senate confirmation. … So you have your sort of more junior staff in place first. And then, six months, 12 months [later], as the assistant secretaries start rolling in through the confirmation process, you have to figure out how to make room for them and really leverage their talents as well.”
If Republicans retain the Senate majority after the Georgia runoff elections, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will play an outsized role in the confirmation process.
GOP leaders already have indicated they intend to abide by the traditional protocol with presidential nominees, though certain picks such as Neera Tanden, Biden’s choice to run the Office of Management and Budget and whom Republicans consider to be outside the “mainstream,” would face an uphill battle.
“I’m no disqualifying anybody, but I do think that it gets a lot harder obviously if they send folks from their progressive left that are kind of out of the mainstream,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
“I would hope that they could consult with us so that if they send somebody up here it’s somebody that we can get confirmed,” Thune added.
Some of Biden’s nominees are already getting a positive reception from Republican senators.
For example, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he has “philosophical” differences with Biden’s pick for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, but said he has “no problem” with her and could see no reason to oppose her nomination.
“My attitude is that, absent conflicts of interest or other — lack of temperament, and uber-partisanship — beyond those, that [Biden] should get the people who he wants to serve him,” Cornyn said. “Obviously, we’re going to have differences of opinion on policy, and that’s fine.”
While Cabinet nominees may get relatively speedy hearings, the Senate is likely to take its time with numerous other posts that require confirmation. Much of that simply comes down to logistics, such as being able to schedule hearings.
The coronavirus pandemic might add delays to the process. So could the Georgia runoff races if the results are close and take days or weeks to certify, leaving open the question of who controls the Senate.
Lara Seligman contributed.