The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ)

Biden’s Cabinet half-empty after slow start in confirmati­ons

- By Alexandra Jaffe

WASHINGTON » President Joe Biden’s Cabinet is taking shape at the slowest pace of any in modern history, with just over a dozen nominees for top posts confirmed more than a month into his tenure.

Among Biden’s 23 nominees with Cabinet rank, just 13 have been confirmed by the Senate, or a little over half. And among the 15 core nominees to lead federal agencies, 10 have been confirmed, or about two thirds. According to the Center for Presidenti­al Transition, about a month into their first terms, the previous four presidents had 84% of their core Cabinet picks confirmed.

On Tuesday, Biden’s cabinet was thrown into further uncertaint­y when his nominee to lead the White House budget office, Neera Tanden, withdrew from considerat­ion after her nomination faced opposition from key senators on both sides of the aisle.

The delay in confirmati­ons means some department­s are left without their top decision-makers as they attempt to put in place policies to address the overlappin­g crises brought on by the coronaviru­s pandemic.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said there are a number of “big decisions” at HHS and across the federal government that are waiting on leadership from the top.

“It’s very unfortunat­e. And in the middle of a huge health crisis, it’s the wrong thing to do,” she said. “Civil servants are capable, but they need leadership. And they’re used to having leaders.”

Shalala was confirmed two days after President Bill Clinton was sworn in, and said she had her chain of command ready to go and could immediatel­y dig into a long list of decisions and policy changes.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the Biden administra­tion’s HHS nominee, will get a committee vote Wednesday, and he’s expected to receive easy confirmati­on. But Shalala pointed to a laundry list of issues — from oversight of hospitals, health care companies and nursing homes during the pandemic to issues surroundin­g drug pricing, telemedici­ne and child care services — that urgently need his input.

Lacking a department head, she said, “just slows everything down.”

Matt Stier, president and CEO of the Partnershi­p for Public Service, a nonprofit organizati­on that tracks presidenti­al transition­s, said federal department­s tend to act more conservati­vely around decisionma­king and shifting policies without the top brass in place.

“Missing the top person means that it’s pretty difficult to actually address the very big questions and to make big changes,” he said. “And there’s a natural conservati­sm in place when people don’t know yet what the top person is going to really want.”

The slow pace in confirmati­ons partly results from the delay in the transition process resulting from President Donald Trump’s attempts to dispute his loss in the 2020 presidenti­al race and from what the Biden White House says was a lack of cooperatio­n from Trump administra­tion officials.

Senate Democrats did not win a majority of seats in the chamber until the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections, and then it took nearly a month for Democratic and Republican leadership to agree on a resolution governing the organizati­on of the upper chamber, which further delayed committee work.

And Democrats privately acknowledg­e that Trump’s second impeachmen­t trial also slowed down the process some, eating up a week of valuable time in the Senate and bogging lawmakers down with other work beyond reviewing and processing Biden’s nominees.

Still, Biden transition spokesman Andrew Bates said that after the delays “stemming from the previous administra­tion’s resistance to the will of the American people,” the relatively smooth confirmati­on progress in recent weeks “is both welcome and appreciate­d.”

He added, however, “it is hardly enough, and nominees with strong bipartisan support — and who are critical to defeating the pandemic and turning our economy around with the creation of millions of jobs — remain needlessly obstructed by individual members. That must change.”

The Biden administra­tion has prioritize­d confirming those nominees who are key to national security, the economy and public health decisions. Biden does have in place his director of national intelligen­ce, and his top brass at the department­s of State, Homeland Security and Defense, as well as his treasury secretary.

But in addition to waiting on Becerra at HHS, the administra­tion lacks top leaders at the Justice Department, Housing and Urban Developmen­t and the Small Business Administra­tion, department­s that will be key to some of Biden’s top priorities and the implementa­tion of his $1.9 trillion coronaviru­s aid bill, if it’s passed into law later this month.

And the delay in confirming top posts also means a delay in confirming and seating deputy secretarie­s and undersecre­taries, who are often in charge of the nitty gritty in implementi­ng major policy. Shalala noted, for instance, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will offer guidance on how insurers should cover coronaviru­s costs and implementa­tion on aspects of the COVID-19 aid bill, and currently only has an acting administra­tor. She also noted HHS has deputies who oversee everything from refugee resettleme­nt to child care programs.

 ?? ANDREW HARNIK — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? President Joe Biden, right, attends a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Washington. Also pictured is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, third from right.
ANDREW HARNIK — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS President Joe Biden, right, attends a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Washington. Also pictured is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, third from right.

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