Biden’s Slow Appointment Process

Key posts across the government remain unfilled.

President Joe Biden signs two executive orders on healthcare Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House.
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

At POLITICO, Alex Thompson Josh Gerstein, and Theodoric Meyer take us “Inside the delay at DOJ.”

Biden’s Justice Department is lagging behind.

Over 10 weeks since inauguration and nearly a month after MERRICK GARLAND was sworn in as attorney general, the president has yet to fill several critical Justice Department posts, including the assistant attorney generals for the criminal, national security, civil and antitrust divisions, along with a solicitor general. In comparison, BARACK OBAMA had nominated people for all of those positions by his third day in office.

Justice Department insiders along with people familiar with the situation say the delay is partly the result of a delicate stand-off between Garland and the White House over who they want in the positions.

The new attorney general feels entitled to pick at least some of these senior posts himself, they say. But given President JOE BIDEN’s long history dealing with criminal justice matters, the White House has had some of their own people in mind, such as Biden’s former Senate counsel NEIL McBRIDE (McBride did not respond to a request for comment).

So, my initial take on this was “Screw Merrick Garland. He’s not the one who got 81 million votes.” But it turns out to be more about former President Donald Trump than Garland.

“I’m sort of flabbergasted,” said another. “You don’t have a national security chief and a criminal division head at the same time you’re putting trillions of dollars out there in programs that have a history of being rife with fraud?”

Part of the problem: The White House is wary of pushing its own choices too hard, for fear it would look like the president is big-footing Garland or stuffing the Justice Department with loyalists.

Biden is determined to draw a contrast with DONALD TRUMP’s repeated attempts to politicize the department. “I’m not going to be saying go prosecute A, B or C,” Biden told CNN in December. “It’s not my Justice Department. It’s the people’s Justice Department.”

That desire to display independence was part of the rationale for selecting Garland over former Sen. DOUG JONES (D-Ala.)who had longstanding ties to Biden.

The ongoing Justice Department investigation into HUNTER BIDEN has only heightened that concern. The criminal division head would be in the chain of officials that would sign off on any decision to prosecute or not prosecute the president’s son if those decisions involve matters beyond the tax issues believed to be at the center of the investigation.

That’s all rather frustrating but probably the right call. Knowing that these controversies (and that’s to say nothing about possible criminal charges against Trump or his senior officials) are coming down the road, it’s shrewd to stave off even the appearance of impropriety. Biden is bending over backward to be the anti-Trump here and it’s likely the right call.

The White House argued that the delay in nominations is more a consequence of Garland’s slow confirmation process rather than the back-and-forth over particular names.

“The biggest factor affecting the timeline for DOJ nominations was the delay of the Attorney General’s confirmation by a small group of Republicans, despite him having overwhelming bipartisan support,” said a White House official. GOP senators like TOM COTTON had put up roadblocks that delayed the confirmation votes.

That seems like a weak excuse. And Republican stonewalling doesn’t explain why nominations haven’t been made to these posts. (Indeed, that’s part of a pattern. Biden hasn’t made appointments to most key Defense Department posts, including all three Service Secretaries, yet.)

“We feel we can make these decisions carefully because we have faith in the acting officials currently leading these offices, whether Biden-Harris Administration appointees or DOJ career professionals,” the official added.

The Justice Department also noted that they still have four pending nominations before the Senate: LISA MONACO (deputy attorney general), VANITA GUPTA (associate attorney general), KRISTEN CLARKE (assistant attorney general for civil rights), and TODD KIM (assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources division).

I’m sure Biden will make strong appointments to all of these posts. But, given the degree to which he hit the ground running, I’m surprised that he’s doing it so slowly throughout the administration.

FILED UNDER: Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    As long as I can remember I’ve seen this type of opinion piece about every first term president. In fact I distinctly remember that despite this pundit using him as a comparison, Obama was castigated for the exact same thing. I wonder if the reality is that in general Presidents move quickly in certain agencies and more slowly in others.

    Yep. Just Google “Obama positions left unfilled” and you’ll get a slew of results.

    ReplyReply
    4
  2. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: Oh, absolutely. But I don’t recall it ever taking this long to get a Secretary of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. I don’t pay nearly as much attention to DOJ but I’d think the key deputy roles would get filled much faster than this. We’re almost three months in now.

    ReplyReply
  3. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: What’s the speculation on why the military is taking so long?

    ReplyReply
  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    We went through this drill in February and a major contributor to the slow down in initial appointments due to McConnell not moving any Biden nominees forward till after Ossoff and Warrnick were seated and Schumer took control. It all runs downhill from that. Add in that Dems have needed to use reconciliation, which is a procedural nightmare and R senators putting holds on nominees… Yeah its been slow.

    ReplyReply
  5. PJ says:

    On the subject of nominations, Biden hasn’t nominated any Ambassadors. At all. (Well, the exception would be the Ambassador to the United Nations who has both been nominated and confirmed, depending, but she’s not accredited to a head of state.)

    ReplyReply
  6. Andy says:

    I’ve never thought this matters much in most cases. The bureaucracy is plenty big and resilient enough to run itself and if a new President isn’t planning major initiatives that need to be forced into place from the top-down, then a month or two doesn’t matter at all.

    ReplyReply
    2
  7. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: I haven’t heard much. It’s rather odd.

    @Sleeping Dog: But you can’t blame Republicans for vacancies to posts for which there is no nominee.

    @PJ: Yes. Again, rather odd.

    @Andy: In the grand scheme, maybe not. But the clock is actually ticking. A year from now, Congress will be in campaign mode, making getting anything done harder. You really need policy people in place to make policy. Otherwise, you get competently managed inertia.

    ReplyReply
    1
  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    Statistical Breakdown of commentary across all media and all presidencies ever:

    Going too fast: 49.5%
    Going too slow: 49.5%
    Just right: 1%.

    ReplyReply
    3
  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    Slow confirmation of the cabinet secretaries would lead to slow appointment of underlings. A good manager gives the management under him the latitude to put together his own team. That is what Biden is doing. And let’s not forget that there was more than one 5 alarm fires ongoing in multiple federal agencies.

    ReplyReply
    1
  10. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    But the clock is actually ticking. A year from now, Congress will be in campaign mode, making getting anything done harder. You really need policy people in place to make policy. Otherwise, you get competently managed inertia.

    This is the point where I’d normally get on an old soapbox about the size, scope, and complexity of the Executive branch.

    ReplyReply
  11. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Slow confirmation of the cabinet secretaries would lead to slow appointment of underlings. A good manager gives the management under him the latitude to put together his own team. That is what Biden is doing.

    I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Biden put a ton of people into secondary positions early. And, at Defense, he’s clearly appointing his own people, not letting Austin do it.

    And let’s not forget that there was more than one 5 alarm fires ongoing in multiple federal agencies.

    Oh, absolutely. But all the more reason to get his folks in there to clean up the mess.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Just right: 1%.

    Indeed. I’m mostly baffled by what’s going on here moreso than criticizing Biden. He got off to a tremendous start, demonstrating that it’s not his first rodeo. But things seem to have slowed down.

    @Andy:

    This is the point where I’d normally get on an old soapbox about the size, scope, and complexity of the Executive branch.

    We actually cut back on the Plum List considerably under Obama but, yes, there are too many appointments to be made. I’m not sure how to change that, though, given the nature of our system.

    ReplyReply
  12. Jay L Gischer says:

    I know very little about the nuts and bolts operation of the government. But I do wonder if there isn’t a thing going on where they are looking for “burrowed in” people from the Trump admin, and looking for ways to deal with them? I doubt they’d want to talk about it if they were.

    ReplyReply
  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Otherwise, you get competently managed inertia.”

    Sadly, that’s all that I’m expecting once the second budget resolution bill (whatever it may be) goes through. Then in two years when the GOP takes legislative control again, we’ll move to incompetently unmanaged inertia.

    ReplyReply

Speak Your Mind

*