WASHINGTON (AP) — For more than a year, the Food and Drug Administration had no permanent chief when the agency was at the center of the battle against COVID-19. Once President Joe Biden nominated Dr. Robert Califf to head the agency, it took the Senate three months to confirm him.
The political battles over Califf’s nomination highlight the difficulties Biden faces in filling key positions throughout his administration.
Vacancies in senior positions in the executive branch could hamper Biden’s ability to fight the pandemic, implement the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure law and stimulate the economy with inflation levels at a 40-year high.
“Without leadership and experts, we have seen increasingly stressed departments,” said Maya MacGuineas, chair of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “There is a struggle to get credit, there is talk of default on the debt ceiling,” she said, adding that unfilled jobs affect the government’s fiscal position and the president’s overall agenda.
The non-profit Partnership for Public Service, which works to make government more efficient, says 70 high-ranking positions across government without a confirmed candidate, including in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Ministry of the Treasury and the Ministry of Transport.
The White House blames Republicans for deadlock in a sharply divided Senate, but it has also failed to submit nominations for many of the vacancies.
The White House says the Biden administration has named 569 people, of whom 302 have been confirmed and 247 are waiting to go through the confirmation process. That’s out of 1,200 civilian positions requiring Senate confirmation.
In Biden’s first year, the Senate confirmed 41% of his nominations, according to the Partnership for Public Service. In comparison, 75% of George W. Bush’s nominees were confirmed in his first year, compared to 69% for Barack Obama and 57% for Donald Trump.
The group is calling for a reduction in the number of Senate-confirmed nominees, saying vetting and disclosure requirements are increasingly complex and delays in the Senate confirmation process increase with each transition.
“Would it be better if it could happen faster?” Yes,” said former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. “Ideally, the confirmation process would be streamlined.” But he added that there must be accountability for these important positions and a process for interviewing applicants about how they would do the job.
Lew was confirmed by the Senate less than two months after his nomination by Obama.
What the vacancies mean for some of Biden’s policy priorities:
CREATE A TAX POLICY
In the Treasury Department, at least five Senate-confirmed positions remain unfilled, including the Undersecretary for International Affairs and the United States Treasurer
A Treasury Department without a head of international affairs will make it increasingly difficult for Secretary Janet Yellen to hope to lead the implementation of a global agreement on corporate taxation.
Lew told The Associated Press that having Senate-verified individuals with prior policy-making and government experience on staff will at least fill the gaps where vacancies exist.
“If you look at the Treasury team, starting at the very top, you have the secretary and the deputy secretary with deep policy-making experience,” he said. “You have a lot of professional talent, which makes transitions easier.”
The key to filling empty seats, he said, “is to make the congressional process work better.”
FIGHT THE PANDEMIC
At the Department of Health and Human Services, two major science-based agencies remain without permanent Senate-confirmed leadership at a time when the administration wrestles with its communications about the pandemic and the country could reopen.
One of the agencies is the FDA. Califf’s nomination had been stalled for months in the Senate, in part because of his consulting work for pharmaceutical companies and allegations that he had failed to effectively regulate addictive opioids. He was narrowly confirmed last week in the post he briefly held under Obama.
The National Institutes of Health is also lacking a director, although budget uncertainty is currently a bigger concern, said Ellie Dehoney, a leading policy expert at Research! America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for national spending on health and medical research.
“They’re limited because they’re under an old budget and they can’t launch new programs very easily,” she said.
However, staff morale remains stable. “What we’ve heard around the NIH is a desire to stay and especially to see through this pandemic,” Dehoney said.
IMPLEMENTATION OF INFRASTRUCTURE PLANS
In the Department of Transportation, acting chiefs are in place at the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, two of the three agencies at the forefront of promoting traffic safety, even as the department launches a new national strategy to avoid record increases. in fatal traffic accidents. The third agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is awaiting full Senate confirmation of Steven Cliff, Biden’s choice to lead the agency, after a committee approved the nomination Feb. 2.
The department also has no candidate to head the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and will soon have a vacancy at the head of the Federal Aviation Administration following the departure of Stephen Dickson on March 31.
At the highways agency, Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack, a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation, plays a key role in implementing provisions of Biden’s new infrastructure law, such as helping to issue directing states on the use of billions of dollars in road money and distributing competitive grants to promote road safety.
At the trucking agency, which regulates the trucking industry, Biden lost his choice of director after Meera Joshi left to take up a post in the administration of New York City Mayor Eric Adams. The department recently moved its deputy assistant secretary for security policy, Robin Hutcheson, to the agency’s acting administrator position.
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state safety bureaus, expressed concern about the ability of the acting chiefs to do the job effectively.
Interim leaders typically have fewer staff around them and tend to be less publicly visible, he said. Currently, the Motor Carrier Agency has a number of truck safety regulatory projects it has yet to complete and is also working on changes to ease congestion in the US supply chain. The highways agency, meanwhile, is at the forefront of urging states and localities to enact changes in road design and speed limits to help reduce fatalities.
EXPLORE GUN CONTROL
Early in his presidency, Biden appointed David Chipman to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but the former ATF agent and gun control advocate faced opposition in the Senate and was considered one of the administration’s most controversial candidates. The application has been withdrawn.
The withdrawal continued a pattern for both Republican and Democratic administrations with the position politically strained since it was made confirmable in 2006. Since then, only one candidate, former U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, has been confirmed. Jones entered the Senate in 2013, but only after a six-month struggle. Jones was acting director when Obama appointed him in January 2013.
Trump’s nomination of Chuck Canterbury, former president of the Fraternal Order of Police, was withdrawn in 2020 due to Republican concerns about his stance on gun rights.
“Our collective view here is that blocking a fully qualified and experienced ex-ATF agent from serving in that role is certainly something Republicans didn’t have to do, but here we are,” he said. said White House press secretary Jen. Psaki. She didn’t blame Democrats, who also said they wouldn’t vote for him. “So we have to appoint a new person. And when the president finds the right person, I’m sure he’ll be ready to do it.
MacGuineas, of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said a “failure to govern” is to blame for the slowed nomination process.
“People have been named who are too controversial to name, or the White House knows they’re going to be withheld,” she said. “The way we are organized right now is very inefficient with a very polarized Congress.”