As shutdown looms, hundreds of key agency posts are still vacant under Trump

Trump blames Democrats for holding up his nominees.

ByABC News
January 19, 2018, 7:10 PM

— -- As a candidate, Donald Trump would often pitch himself to voters by citing his experience managing a vast business empire — saying he hires only “the best people.”

But nearly a year into his presidency, and as a potential government shutdown looms, hundreds of key posts in his administration remain vacant — raising questions about whether essential government operations have taken a hit due to the scaling back of what Trump has called a “bloated federal bureaucracy.”

Trump often blames Democrats for stalling the confirmation process, slamming them as “obstructionists.”

“Dems are taking forever to approve my people, including Ambassadors,” the president tweeted in July. “They are nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS! Want approvals.”

As of January 13, President Trump had announced a total of 559 nominations, with 301 of those nominees confirmed, according to the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service. For comparison, one year into their administrations, President Obama had announced 690 nominees with 452 confirmed and George W. Bush had named 741 with 493 confirmed.

The figures do not include judicial nominations.

“What is shocking is that there are more critical positions for which there is literally no nominee — than for which there is a confirmed person in place,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service. “It’s like showing up on the field in the second quarter and they are missing half their offensive line. It’s a real problem.”

The Partnership for Public Service has identified 633 key government jobs needing Senate confirmation — and says of those — less than 40 percent still had no nominee.

However, a person familiar with the process says the administration has identified 353 people that the president has already approved, but not yet nominated, because they are still going through the clearance process.

“There’s a process and the process is working,” the source said, noting that everyone who needs to be nominated is in the pipeline.

While it’s true that this administration has lagged behind others, the source says the problem originated from disorganization in Trump’s presidential transition team, given that one of its key tasks is to begin the vetting process for potential nominees. The White House was forced to play a game of catch up, the source says, as the transition was about 250 jobs behind when Trump took office.

Senate delays in the confirmation process have also played a role.

On average, it has taken 72 days for the Senate to confirm a Trump administration nominee, compared to 54 days under Obama and 36 days under George W. Bush, according to the Partnership for Public Service. The Senate also sent back nearly 100 Trump nominees at year's end that the president has mostly renominated.

The White House has not made nominations to fill some key positions. For example, there is no U.S. Ambassador to South Korea at a time where there is a critical need for diplomacy in the region. There is also no IRS commissioner, which raises questions as to the successful implementation of tax reform.

In addition, many agencies remain without deputy secretaries in place.

Not having these key positions in place — especially on the eve of a government shutdown — could further impact necessary government functions, Stier said.

"In the event that Congress does not pass a CR or budget today, the administration will have to make multiple judgment calls on what government activities are essential and should continue, even without specifically appropriated resources. Not having political appointments in place could further handicap our government’s essential functions.”

At the State Department, for example, more than half of Senate-confirmed positions remain unfilled, triggering accusations Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is depleting the agency’s senior ranks.

Trump has said previously he doesn’t intend to fill many government posts — including at the State Department — because some are “totally unnecessary.”

“I’m generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be -- because you don’t need them. I mean, you look at some of these agencies, how massive they are, and it’s totally unnecessary,” Trump said in an interview with Forbes in October. “They have hundreds of thousands of people. And you look at -- so the appointments, I’ve made some great appointments.”

Stier agrees there are too many political appointees and too many positions that require Senate confirmation. But he argues that to change the current system the White House would need to make changes through legislation instead of “not using the system we have today effectively.”

When asked about the president’s comments, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders conceded the president doesn’t intend to fill all vacancies because he “came to Washington to drain the swamp.”

“There are still some positions that he is working to fill and a lot of individuals that are in the queue and going through the process – the vetting process that is very lengthy. Certainly want to fill some of the open positions but not all of them,” Sanders said. “The president came to Washington to drain the swamp and get rid of a lot of duplication and make government more efficient. And so if we can have one person do a job instead of six, then we certainly want to do that and save taxpayer dollars.”

This story is part of a week-long series examining the first year of the Trump administration.

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