January 19, 2017
Republicans, both in the incoming Trump administration and on Capitol Hill, are growing increasingly angry with Senate Democrats’ efforts to slow the confirmation of Trump nominees. GOP lawmakers and staff often point out that the Senate confirmed seven Obama nominees — secretaries of agriculture, education, energy, homeland security, interior, veterans affairs and a budget director — on Inauguration Day 2009. Now, Democrats are saying they might — might — allow the confirmation of two Trump nominees on Friday. Privately, some Democrats are jealous of the success Trump’s nominees have had in the private sector.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is accusing Republicans of trying “to jam through Cabinet nominees in a way that hides their views from the American people.” Schumer wants more extensive — read longer — committee hearings for Trump nominees, and without them, he said, “then [Republicans] should be prepared for that debate on the floor — extensive debate.”
On Thursday, Schumer said Democrats might allow Inauguration Day votes on Secretary of Defense-designate James Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security-designate John Kelly. So where Obama had seven, Trump will have two.
In light of an ongoing Democrat blockade, the new administration is taking pains to assure Americans that the government will keep working after noon Friday, stressing something called “beachhead teams” and “continuity of government.”
What will actually happen at federal departments and agencies when Obama political appointees leave and there’s no one to replace them? What if there is an emergency? And even if there is no urgent event, what about day-to-day operations?
Vice President-elect Mike Pence announced Thursday that there are 536 Trump “beachhead team members” ready to head into the departments and agencies of the federal government at noon Friday. (They will succeed the so-called “landing teams” who worked with those departments during the transition period.) The beachhead teams are basically short-term, Trump-chosen staff. “Those individuals are able to work in the various departments as temporary officials for 120 days,” incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Friday. “Until the secretary or administrator or director is confirmed, they are unable to make a permanent appointment.”
The importance of the beachhead teams, Spicer stressed, is not to enact the Trump agenda but to ensure the government continues to function without a hitch. “Continuity of government is if there’s an attack or some kind of weather incident that occurs where each of our departments have to be called into action to support the American people,” Spicer explained. “We’re ready to go. Make no mistake, we’re ready to go on Day One.”
The vast majority of workers in the federal government are career workers who stay on the job from administration to administration. But there are about 4,000 political positions that are filled by the president.
Spicer made a distinction between continuity of government, which is important from the first minute of the new administration, and acting on the Trump agenda, which will be accomplished by Trump appointees. Only Wednesday did Trump announce the last of his 21 Cabinet nominees. There are hundreds of other positions at the top levels of various departments and agencies that have to be filled. Many have to be confirmed by the Senate. Very, very few names have been announced for those positions.
Spicer said the president-elect is now turning his attention to that. “The president wanted to make sure the entire Cabinet was locked and loaded before getting to the deputy level,” Spicer said. Now, “you’ll see a lot of that activity at the lower level.”
But still there is that Democrat roadblock in the Senate. There’s no doubt Schumer and his colleagues can delay confirmations. But as the Senate gears up into regular order, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can start to push nominations through on the strength of the Republicans’ 52-seat majority. Democrats can slow the process, at least for a while, but they can’t stop it.