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Why The Rate Of Congressional Confirmations Are Down Under The Trump Administration


Mike Pompeo, President Trump's pick for secretary of state, is facing a contentious confirmation process in the Senate. A growing number of Democrats say they will vote no, and that's in addition to at least one Republican. The White House says all of this is part of a larger pattern of obstruction against Trump's nominees, and that is harming the effectiveness of the government. To talk about why the rate of confirmations is down under this president, we're joined by White House legislative affairs director Marc Short. Welcome to the program.

MARC SHORT: Thanks for having me back on.

CHANG: Before we talk about nominations overall, I want to ask very briefly about Mike Pompeo and his confirmation. Was his trip to North Korea, his meeting with Kim Jong Un made public in part to put pressure on the Senate to confirm him?

SHORT: No, I don't think that that was the purpose of it. I think the reality is that Mike's credentials speak for themselves. He graduated number one of his class at West Point, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, served six years in Congress, served in the Army honorably and also has been, by all accounts - done an exemplary job as director of the CIA. That should speak for itself as far as Mike's credentials to be the next secretary of state.

Unfortunately I think many Democrats would concede and acknowledge all that he has to offer for the job, but unfortunately the environment in Washington has become so polarized that they had - many of them feel a lot of pressure from their base. And as opposed to looking at the national security consequences, they're simply responding to base politics.

CHANG: All right, let's take a look at the broader picture, this polarization you're talking about. Republicans are in control of this Senate. Explain why the White House still believes Senate Democrats have been able to actively block confirmations.

SHORT: Sure. What the tool the Democrats have used is a cloture vote or in essence what's commonly referred to as a filibuster to drag out confirmation. At this rate, it would take the administration more than 11 years to get all of our political appointees confirmed - the United States Senate. It is a broken process. Another data point to give your listeners is that the last four presidents combined from H.W. Bush to Clinton to W. Bush to Obama - in their entire first term - so all four of them their entire first four years, 16 years combined, there were 32 filibusters, 32 on nominees.

In 15 months this administration, we've had more than 80. Senate Democrats have filibustered more than 80 nominees. And in many cases, those people have been confirmed by votes such as 96-1 - in one case, 100-0 for a judge from Idaho that still was forced to go through 30 hours of debate even though there was really no - nothing controversial and no reason for the debate. But Democrats know that the tools of the Senate allow them to delay 30 hours of Senate floor time means you can't move forward on the legislative agenda...

CHANG: But it's not just - it's...

SHORT: ...Because you're tying up the Senate.

CHANG: It's not just Democrats who are slowing down these confirmations. A number of Republicans have also objected to expediting the process for certain nominations. I mean, I'm thinking Cory Gardner of Colorado held up DOJ nominations. John Cornyn of Texas held up a nomination at the Office of Management and Budget. Both sides have been doing this.

SHORT: You're exactly right, and that's very frustrating to us as well when Republicans add onto the trip to the difficulties we have. I would say that predominantly, though, it is true that it is the Democrats who've been dragging these out. In the case of John Cornyn, he was using one of Mick Mulvaney's deputies as a way to leverage more hurricane funding.

CHANG: Let me...

SHORT: And Cory Gardner was for marijuana legalization.

CHANG: Right. Democrats say part of the problem is that the White House isn't adequately vetting many nominees. There have been nominees who've lacked the qualifications or have been clouded by scandal or conflicts of interest and therefore have had to withdraw. I'm thinking of Andrew Puzder for secretary of labor, Tom Marino for drug czar, Sam Clovis for undersecretary of the Agricultural Department. What do you say about that?

SHORT: I'd say that previous administrations have had some nominees withdraw, too. But keep in mind what we do before nominee is even forward it to the United States Senate - is asked to go through a full FBI background check, and they have to have financial papers examined by the Office of Government Ethics. That is not part of the White House vetting process. That is the FBI and a government agency that Congress set up to review people's financial disclosure and make sure there's no conflicts. So that vetting process is the same as it has been in previous administrations. That is not a consequence of the administration being slow in putting forth nominees or not doing the full vetting.

CHANG: I also want to point out that there's been tremendous turnover in this administration. The workload has been pretty big for the Senate. I mean, the Senate's had to deal with two health and human services secretaries now, two secretaries of state, a second CIA director. That's - there's just a much longer list of people to get through.

SHORT: You know, it's a fair point that a couple of the high-profile Cabinet secretaries have turned over, but what we're talking about is literally hundreds and hundreds of judges, of appointments to boards, of assistant secretaries, of undersecretaries that have no business being tied up for 30 hours of floor debate because in order to get to the floor, they have to go through - get a committee confirmation.

CHANG: All right, that's White House legislative affairs director Marc Short. Thank you very much.

SHORT: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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