President Donald Trump took to Twitter this week to again voice frustrations with what he calls “obstructionism” against his executive nominees.
“39% of my nominations, including Diplomats to foreign lands, have not been confirmed due to Democrat obstruction and delay,” Trump tweeted April 2. “At this rate, it would take more than 7 years before I am allowed to have these great people start working. Never happened before. Disgraceful!”
Trump’s nominees have indeed been confirmed at a slower pace than in recent presidencies, Politifact data shows. At the same point in their terms, the Senate had confirmed 81 percent of Bill Clinton’s nominees, 78 percent of George W. Bush’s and 67 percent of Barack Obama’s.
Why the hold up for Trump?
Tucked into the Senate rules is a provision allowing a minority party to force an additional 30 hours of mandatory debate after cloture, considerably slowing down the confirmation process. Historically, parties usually agreed to confirm most presidential appointees, but nominees have recently been used more often as bargaining chips.
The White House has complained this process was triggered 79 times against Trump’s nominees over 14 months. Put into perspective, at the same point in their first terms, Obama, Clinton, and both Bushes faced only 17 cloture votes combined, it said.
White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short said last month that Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is “weaponizing a Senate procedure and demanding cloture votes on our nominees that he even eventually supports.”
So why have nominees been more frequently blocked or slowed?
It could be Democrats simply questioning their qualifications, such as those of Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos, Sarah Binder, senior governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Independent Journal Review.
Binder noted that ethics concerns could also be on the mind of senators looking to draw out the nomination process. Some of the delays came in figuring how a nominee would deal with past or current financial interests, such as Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Price’s pharmaceutical investments.
Another puzzling point for legislation, Binder supposes, is questionable White House nomination priorities.
“There’s some question from the Democrats of which nominees are coming down the pipe,” Binder said. “Why go ahead and confirm an individual to the Civil Rights Office and Education Department if there’s no ambassador in place for South Korea?”
And there may just be “plain old partisan obstruction,” she added. Democrats who disagree with Trump’s proposed policies would be moved to slow down the process generally to make it more difficult for the administration to pursue its agenda.
Time spent on nominations freezes the Senate, and the White House has a long legislative to-do list for Capitol Hill — like infrastructure and immigration reform — that they’re unlikely to touch before the November midterms.
Nominating candidates should be a breeze, especially if the majority party in the Senate also sits on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“It used to be that using a filibuster against a nominee was a big deal, so not many people did it,” Matthew Green, associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research told IJR. “What’s happening now is the rules are changed, so you can’t block a nominee as easily. But Democrats are now demanding cloture votes on more nominees.”
Green is referring to the “nuclear option,” a procedural change triggered by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to make it easier to block filibusters and get Obama’s nominees approved. Republicans in response resorted to slowing down the process with the 30-hour rule, which Democrats now are using against Trump’s appointments.
“By making it easier to pass cloture, [Senate Republicans] are now guaranteeing that executive branch nominees will take more time,” Green said.
There are a few things Senate Republicans can do to try avoiding a drawn-out confirmation process. One way would be for leadership to shore up support within their own party, Michele Sewers, professor of American Government at Georgetown University, told IJR.
“It’s particularly important that Mitch McConnell lobby within in his own caucus to get all Republicans to support any nominee that is being brought up,” Sewers said.
But even that has proved difficult for some of Trump’s more controversial nominees like Mike Pompeo for secretary of state, whom Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has strongly opposed for his hawkish foreign policy.
Another way is to put additional pressure on “Red State Democrats” like Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Sewers said.
Senate Republicans only have a razor-thin 50-47 majority against the Democrats, following the retirement of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) this week. Thirty-three seats are being contested in November’s midterm election.
‘Obstruction By Any Other Name’
Experts who spoke to IJR said that while the number of cloture uses may be historic, the politicking is anything but.
“There’s something unusual here in the frequency and degree of use of cloture on executive branch nominees,” Binder said. “But the idea that the opposition party would exploit the rules to pursue its agenda is not new at all.”
Sewers suggested that perspective is key.
“Obstruction is in the eye of the beholder,” Sewers said. “Obstruction can mean I’m just slowing things down […] so really what you’ll end up seeing is nominees not making the floor for a vote.”
Green said that as of late the Senate has thrown out the rulebook altogether.
“Part of the problem is that everything the Senate is doing these days is unprecedented,” Green said. “You name it, whether it’s changing the rules for the filibuster, or not having a vote on a Supreme Court nominee […] the Senate is moving in new directions all the time. I think it’s sort of hyperbole to call this ‘unprecedented.’”
Republicans want to reform the rules, but Green flatly added that the chance of that happening is “zero.”
‘Pick Up the Pace’
Of course, these numbers only tell part of the story. Other factors such as rate of nomination play a major role.
Republicans expressed frustrations with the leisurely rate Trump was appointing individuals to key administration roles. More than 200 vacancies still don’t have nominees, according to the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
“They need to pick up the pace,” John Thune (R-S.D.) said last May.
“We need to get more names up here so we can work on them,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (Texas), the second-ranking member of Senate GOP leadership. “We need to get Democrats to quit dragging their feet.”
But Trump insists he already has “hundreds” in the confirmation lineup that still need attention.
“Hundreds of good people, including very important Ambassadors and Judges, are being blocked and/or slow walked by the Democrats in the Senate,” he tweeted in March. “Many important positions in Government are unfilled because of this obstruction. Worst in U.S. history!”
Either way, Democrats seem to show no signs of slowing down.
“It’s really wrong to hold the seat vacant for four years, then change the rules, and then say we’re going to fill the bench just with people we want,” Schumer said after striking down one of Trump’s judicial appointees last month.
“There ought to be some compromise here.”
Correction [4/13/18, 9:13 a.m. ET]: Previously, this article labeled Chuck Schumer as the Senate Majority Leader. He is the Minority Leader.