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Confirmation Backlog Leaves Biden's State Department Badly Understaffed

FILE - The State Department Building is pictured in Washington, Jan. 26, 2017.

Nine months after taking office, President Joe Biden has seen only 20 of his appointments to the State Department confirmed by the Senate, with nearly half of the 167 American ambassadorships empty and dozens of key policy positions staffed by unconfirmed officials serving in an "acting" role.

The number of empty desks at the State Department is partly Biden's own fault, according to analysts. He was slow to nominate candidates for dozens of the 264 positions at State that require confirmation by the Senate, and still hasn't named 57 of them.

However, many of the key positions remain unfilled because the process of gaining the approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has taken many nominees months to navigate.

FILE - Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asks a question on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 24, 2020.
FILE - Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asks a question on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 24, 2020.

Finally, sitting at the end of the gauntlet, is Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, who has been using Senate procedures to prevent many non-controversial nominees from receiving a prompt up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. Cruz contends that the Biden administration is in flagrant violation of the law, because it has refused to enforce sanctions on a Russian natural gas pipeline.

In addition to Cruz, Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley has also blocked a number of Biden's nominees.

'Geometric level of incompetence'

"The administration has not covered itself with glory at the pace of its nominations," said Ronald E. Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. "The Senate multiplies the problem by not moving them. Cruz then raises it to a geometric level of incompetence with his holds, and so they all reinforce each other."

Experts worry that the lack of confirmed senior staff is hobbling the Biden administration's ability to conduct day-to-day diplomacy, and leaving many worried that it would be unable to respond adequately to a severe global crisis.

"It is undoubtedly diminishing the capability of our State Department, and therefore, our country's national security," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit good government organization that tracks the nomination process closely. "It's a big deal. And that's not to diminish the acting officials in jobs across the State Department. They are great people, but they're not set up for success."

Neumann agreed that extensive delays in filling key posts is "quite damaging" to operations.

A former assistant secretary of state who also held three ambassadorships, Neumann said, "Not having your senior team means you don't have the people that are going to give you the best advice. And it also means that the acting people ... are going to be a little more hesitant about pushing back against things they think are dumb."

The current state of play

In total, Biden has sent 106 State Department nominations to the Senate, according to the Partnership for Public Service. Twenty of those have been confirmed, and another 45 have been cleared by the Foreign Relations Committee and are awaiting a final floor vote by the full Senate.

Biden's 41 remaining nominees are lost somewhere in the limbo of the confirmation process, attending confirmation hearings or preparing answers to enormous numbers of written questions directed at them by members of the Senate.

FILE - Ken Salazar, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, speaks to the press after arriving at the Benito Juarez International Airport, in Mexico City, Sept. 11, 2021.
FILE - Ken Salazar, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, speaks to the press after arriving at the Benito Juarez International Airport, in Mexico City, Sept. 11, 2021.

Candidates for ambassadorships have been moving particularly slowly. To date only one of Biden's picks for an ambassadorship — the nomination of former Senator Ken Salazar to be ambassador to Mexico — has been approved.

Of the 167 ambassadorships the Partnership for Public Service tracks, only 88 are filled, and 87 of those are "holdover" appointments who were confirmed prior to Biden's taking office.

Cruz controls

Senator Cruz has been in a months-long fight with the Biden administration over its decision to waive congressionally mandated sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a controversial pipeline that delivers natural gas from Russia to Europe.

Cruz points to the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a law that passed Congress with near-unanimous support in 2017, and included language that said the president "shall" continue to enforce sanctions against Russia, including those on the pipeline.

President Donald Trump signed the legislation, though he simultaneously issued a signing statement in which he argued that the law's elimination of the president's discretion in enforcing the sanctions was unconstitutional.

FILE - Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asks questions during a hearing in Washington, Dec. 16, 2020.
FILE - Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asks questions during a hearing in Washington, Dec. 16, 2020.

Cruz has relented on some specific nominations, and he has issued a standing offer to release his holds if the Biden administration resumes enforcement of the sanctions.

But Cruz has not been alone. Senator Hawley has said that he will continue blocking State Department nominees until the department's entire senior leadership, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, resigns. His reason for demanding the resignations is the administration's highly criticized handling of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer.

A procedural blockade

While it simplifies matters to say that Cruz and Hawley are "blocking" a vote on Biden's nominees, it isn't precisely accurate.

When the Senate operates through what is known as "regular order," issues before the body progress on a slow path to a final vote on the floor. That path includes several preliminary votes to allow a measure to move from one step in the process to the next. This can take hours, and if the more than 1,200 positions in the federal government that require Senate confirmation were each subjected to it, it could take years to clear the backlog.

To speed things up, the Senate uses "unanimous consent" agreements to move whole batches of nominees all at once. These agreements, as their name suggests, require every senator to agree to suspend the requirements of regular order.

What Cruz and Hawley are doing is refusing their consent to suspend regular order when it comes to State Department nominees, forcing Democrats to go through the full process for each of Biden's nominees. In fact, the Senate's Democratic leadership has done that for a handful of Biden nominees, but has not been willing to set aside every other item on its agenda in order to concentrate on the State Department.

On September 28, as the Senate was pushing a handful of nominees over the finish line, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, made nine consecutive requests for unanimous consent on pending nominations, including several ambassadorships. Senator Hawley objected to each of them.