Outcome of midterms unlikely to improve the Senate confirmation process for executive branch nominees
The time it takes to confirm presidential appointments in the Senate has grown longer and longer over the past four decades, despite several changes to Senate rules. The confirmation process now takes more than twice as long as it did during President George H. W. Bush’s administration, and the results of the midterm elections are unlikely to reverse the 40-year pattern.
Whether the parties controlling the Senate and the White House are the same or different has not been the main factor. The outcome of the upcoming midterm elections and whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate will likely have a major impact on the Biden administration’s ability to enact its legislative agenda, but it is unlikely to have an impact on the overall pattern of a growing confirmation timeline for positions in the executive branch.
The numbers fluctuate from year to year and administration to administration, but the likely reason why a divided government doesn’t slow the process is because Senate rules, regardless of who’s in the majority, give individual members ways to stall confirmation of a president’s nominees. And, in an era of increased partisanship, minority members have taken advantage of those powers, using legislative procedures such as anonymous holds and delays in committees to slow the process.
Long and complex confirmations present challenges for administrations and the government as a whole. Prolonged vacancies at the top make it hard for agencies to pursue their mission, and the drawn-out confirmation process eats up valuable time the Senate could be spending on other business. Moreover, the lengthy confirmation process discourages many talented people from seeking to serve, and others to walk away in the middle of the process.
Important positions in the current administration have sat empty for a long time. The Office of Personnel Management has been missing an official deputy director for nearly two years. The nominee for the Office of Management and Budget controller, Laurel Blatchford, recently withdrew from consideration, after waiting more than 10 months without a Senate confirmation vote.
The average length of confirmations over time
Since 1989, it has taken the Senate an average of 109 days overall to confirm nominees for full-time executive branch positions, although the averages have grown steadily over time. That average excludes judges, marshals and U.S. attorneys. During the H.W. Bush administration, the average time was 64 days, while the average during President Donald Trump’s administration was 154 days. Through Sept. 19, 2022, President Joe Biden’s nominations have taken an average of 137 days, although that number is likely to increase since many nominations remain stalled, and the clock keeps ticking.
Since 1989, the average time to confirm nominations with opposing parties in the Senate and White House has actually been shorter than the average time when the controlling parties are the same, although there have been large variations during different time periods. As a whole, it has taken an average of 92 days to get confirmations through the Senate when the parties are different, compared with 120 days when the parties are the same.
Those overall numbers only tell part of the story, however. Under H. W. Bush—four years when Republicans held the White House and Democrats controlled the Senate—the average confirmation was 64 days, much less than during any of the subsequent administrations. By contrast, Republicans controlled both the White House and Senate during the Trump administration and confirmations took more than twice as long.
In some instances, confirmation times when the same party controlled the Senate and White House have been shorter. During the six years President Barack Obama worked with a Democratic-led Senate, the average confirmation took 129 days, compared with 185 days when he worked with a Republican-led Senate. In other instances, divided government produced confirmations in less time. During the four years President George W. Bush worked with a Republican-led Senate, the average confirmation took 98 days, compared with only 80 days for the four years when Democrats controlled the Senate.
Can we fix the Senate confirmation process?
Many factors contribute to the pace of confirmation for any given nominee or even any specific Congress or time period. But the overall trend is clear: the confirmation process has become longer. While the Senate has made attempts in recent years to streamline the process, such as creating the privileged nomination calendar, the impact has been mixed and the process is not any quicker.
The Senate and the White House need to find other ways to improve the process. The Center has suggested options such as decreasing the number of Senate-confirmed positions and converting some political appointments to nonpolitical career roles.
The fallout from delays in getting Senate-confirmed appointees into their roles affects every president and Congress, regardless of party. And the long-term trend of slower confirmations is likely to continue unless action is taken to improve the process.
Carlos Galina is a former member of the Partnership’s Research, Evaluation and Modernizing Government team.