WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden approaches his 100th day in office, he has yet to fill a number of key positions throughout the federal government, vacancies that former officials and advocacy groups warn could hobble agencies responsible for everything from the influx of migrants at the border to the safety of Covid-19 vaccines.
Across the federal government, there are more than 400 positions requiring Senate confirmation for which Biden has yet to put forward a nominee, including heads of the Food and Drug Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Office of Management and Budget.
While the jobs are being filled temporarily, officials are limited when in an acting capacity: they are unlikely to put in place the permanent staff below them, or make any structural or cultural changes. Even once a nomination is made, it can take months for the nominee to make it through the confirmation process and into their permanent roles — meaning a number of agencies and departments may lack permanent leadership through the summer.
“It’s the equivalent of having a substitute teacher. They could be an amazing educator, but everyone knows the substitute teacher doesn’t get respect from the classroom, and they don’t see themselves as owning the long term education of the class,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. “As a result, they are unlikely to take on the big hairy problems or things that require a long time to resolve, and people on the outside are unlikely to receive them as having much authority, certainly not long term authority.”
Filling the hundreds of positions in the federal government is a slow process for any incoming administration. While Biden quickly filled his cabinet despite electoral-related disruptions during his transition, his pace over the past month has fallen behind that of former President Barack Obama’s.
Biden has formally submitted 70 nominees to the Senate whereas Obama had put forward 109 nominees at this point in his presidency, according to Stier’s group. Biden has announced several nominees in recent days whose names have yet to go to the Senate. Former President Donald Trump, who had a disorganized and chaotic transition, had submitted 45 nominations over the same time.
The State Department has the highest number of vacancies, with 123 posts unfilled, the vast majority of them ambassadorships, followed by 49 positions at the Defense Department, including the Secretaries of the Air Force, Army and Navy, the Partnership for Public Service data shows. At the Energy Department, there are 19 openings, including an administrator charged with maintaining the country’s nuclear stockpile.
As the U.S. deals with a surge of unaccompanied children at the border, several top immigration jobs have yet to be filled. Biden hasn’t put forward a nominee to run Customs and Border Protection nor Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two agencies that have been on the front lines of detaining, processing and temporarily housing the influx of migrants. He also hasn’t nominated anyone to run U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has been handling immigration applications and processing asylum seekers coming to the border.
Those vacancies are drawing concern from immigration advocacy groups, who say the agencies can’t undergo the cultural and structural changes Biden is seeking until they have permanent leadership.
“The changes in culture at a lot of the agency that will be necessary to fully implement the president’s new vision for immigration will not fundamentally be possible until permanent and very strong leadership is in place at all the relevant agencies within the Department of Homeland Security,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council.
When asked during a White House press briefing this month when Biden would be filling the immigration posts, Psaki declined to give a timeline.
“Those are certainly important roles and ones that we are eager to fill,” said Psaki. “I don’t have an update on the personnel there, but we also have a number of experienced leaders, including the Secretary of Homeland Security, who had served as Deputy Secretary in the past and others throughout the agencies who are implementing our work on a daily basis.”
While Biden quickly filled a number of top jobs responsible for responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, he has yet to nominate an individual to run the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has been central to approving new Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments as well as overseeing their safety and manufacturing.
Last month, six former FDA commissioners sent a letter to Biden urging him to name a permanent commissioner quickly, arguing the position is crucial to the response to the pandemic.
“We urge you to prioritize securing its leadership team, including through seeking the formal nomination and confirmation of an FDA Commissioner. The agency’s experienced staff and its science-based regulatory processes will play a critical role in helping the nation confront the evolving pandemic,” the letter says.
Several groups of physicians have called on Biden to make the acting commissioner, Janet Woodcock, the nominee. Woodcock is an FDA veteran who has spent decades overseeing the agency’s drug review and approval process. But there has been some opposition from anti-opioid advocates, who have raised concerns about past opioid approvals during her tenure.
A White House official declined to say when an FDA commissioner could be nominated. “We take seriously our obligation to find a candidate with strong technical, management, and communications experience,” they added. “In the meantime, we are grateful to have strong career leadership in place.”
As the government works to put together a budget for next year, Biden has yet to name a new nominee to run the Office of Budget and Management. His original nominee, Neera Tanden, withdrew her name from consideration after it appeared she didn’t have enough votes to win Senate confirmation.
“We, of course, have an acting OMB director, Shlanda Young, who is beloved by Capitol Hill, as you all know,” Psaki said April 5 when asked when Biden would be putting forward a new nominee. “And so she is, of course, playing a very important role. But we didn’t have one for some period of time because she was only recently confirmed as the deputy and now the action. I don’t have a personnel update for you in terms of the timeline for formally nominating a replacement for OMB.”
Where Biden has succeeded compared to his predecessors is in filling lower-tier political appointee jobs that don’t have to go through the Senate. Biden has filled 1,100 political appointees posts — more than Obama or Trump had done combined in their first 100 days, said Stier.
One advantage to delaying some nominations is that it could prevent nominees from lingering in the pipeline too long, a scenario that could allow political opposition to mount — particularly if the nominee is already serving in the acting capacity. But with Democrats controlling the Senate, just one of Biden’s nominees has struggled to get enough support, so far.
With Democrats currently in narrow control of the Senate, the body has moved relatively quickly to confirm Biden’s nominees with 37 having been confirmed and 29 going through the confirmation process. But with the chamber increasingly turning its focus to legislative issues that will draw Republican opposition, there is likely to be less time on the Senate floor to vote on nominees.