Trump's hiring problem is getting better — but his administration is still thin

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump is picking up the pace of nominations for Senate-confirmed positions, but he is still behind his predecessors in filling out his administration.
  • The holes in staffing are across the government, though vacancies at the State Department have received the most attention.
Donald Trump
Carlos Barria | Reuters

More than five months into his presidency, President Donald Trump is starting to fill out the executive branch more quickly.

But he still lags behind his predecessors in filling jobs — and many departments in his administration remain thin.

As of Wednesday, Trump had formally nominated 178 people to positions that require Senate confirmation, with 46 appointees confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that tracks the pace of presidential nominations. He trails the pace set by Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — but he has started to catch up relative to his predecessors since the end of May.

The numbers exclude judicial nominations — many of which Trump has made — and noncivilian positions. Here are how Trump's nominations compare with the four presidents who served before him, though the numbers are not perfectly comparable because the presidents filled different numbers of positions:

Trump had formally nominated only 110 people to positions tracked by the Partnership for Public Service as of May 31. He has nominated 68 since, an increase in his pace.

But the executive branch remains broadly understaffed, which can affect policy across the government, said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.

"When you talk about 46 people confirmed, it's pretty much everywhere that you've got substantial glaring holes. ... This is not a localized problem. It's everywhere," Stier said.

Trump "is primarily slowing himself down — by imposing loyalty tests, requiring multiple staffers to sign off, and acting erratically," according to Anne O'Connell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the presidential appointment process.

Still, some factors going for Trump could speed up his nominations, she said. In particular, a 2013 rules change means nominees can get through with only a majority vote in the GOP-controlled Senate — something that already saved some Trump picks like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Potential trouble spots 

The most "obvious" problem area in Trump's executive branch is the State Department, according to Stier. Trump had only seen eight people confirmed to his State Department as of June 23, compared with at least 23 confirmations for each of the four presidents who preceded him by the same time, according to The Washington Post, which is tracking nominations with the Partnership for Public Service.

As of June 23, Trump had nominated only 12 people for State who were waiting for confirmation, also a lower figure than his predecessors.

Stier notes that the vacancies come as the Trump administration attempts to deal with an escalating crisis over North Korea. The U.S. and its allies are trying to curb the isolated and defiant nation's missile and nuclear programs. The Trump administration has already put less emphasis on the State Department than past administrations, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly "unloaded on" a White House aide recently over his frustrations with the staffing process.

"There may be legitimate reasons why you want to reorganize [the State Department], but keeping [positions] vacant this long isn't the way to do this right," Stier said.

The Post notes that, in terms of the number of people confirmed, the State Department is in better shape than most parts of the executive branch. The newspaper reported this week that in more than half of the 15 "primary executive departments," only the secretary leading it has been confirmed.

That includes Agriculture, Commerce, Energy and Education, among others.

O'Connell adds that deregulation — a key plank of the Trump agenda — could be hindered by a lack of officials at executive branch agencies. Agencies looking to repeal regulations as directed by Trump need to undertake a notice and comment process during rulemaking, something that could be hurt by fewer appointees.

Once Trump does nominate people, the Senate confirmation has taken an average of 43 days, longer than in the administrations of any of the previous four presidents.

Trump has repeatedly pinned his confirmation problems on Senate Democrats, whom he calls "obstructionists." While the minority Democrats have taken steps to delay Trump nominees as much as they can, their ability to do so is limited.

It is unclear if the pace can increase from here. Senate Republicans are focusing on mustering the support to pass an Obamacare replacement bill before their August recess.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has called on Congress to raise the debt ceiling before August, as well. Lawmakers also will need to pass an appropriations bill, while the GOP wants to approve a tax reform plan by the end of the year.

O'Connell notes that the Senate still confirmed many of Obama's nominees during the summer of 2009, when it was working on Obamacare. She said she expects the Trump administration to catch up to recent predecessors by the end of the year.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this article.