For the first time ever, the United States was recently voted off of a United Nations human rights commission. Most observers believe one reason that happened was because we didn’t yet have in place a new ambassador to the UN. And today, we still don’t.
In fact, with the year more than halfway over, the United States also lacks a chairman of the Consumer Products Safety Division, a director of the Office for National Drug Control Policy – the nation’s drug czar – and the chief lawyer for the Department of Labor to enforce the nation’s labor laws. It’s not that candidates for these important positions haven’t been nominated by President Bush. The UN Ambassador, for example, was nominated in May. The problem is that the Senate, which must confirm presidential appointees, has failed to act.
While progress has been made in recent days to move some nominations to a vote, more needs to be done. Up until mid-July – more than one-eighth of the way into President Bush’s first term – the Senate had confirmed just two of the President’s 12 nominees for the Department of Education, only seven of 25 nominees to the Justice Department and only two people in the entire Department of Interior. Until the end of July, in fact, Interior Secretary Gale Norton worked alone as the only person confirmed in her office.
This “confirmation slowdown” harms all Americans. The severe delay in confirming U.S. policymakers dilutes America’s influence abroad, creates uncertainty in the administration of Cabinet departments, and has been a major impediment to the proper functioning of government services. Until they are confirmed by the Senate, presidential appointees are not allowed to make any decisions, testify before Congress or negotiate with foreign officials. In many ways, the wheels of government grind to a halt.
The situation is even worse when it comes to the federal judiciary, where a vacancy crisis in the courts has slowed the pace of trials, delayed convictions and sentencings, and further tormented crime victims seeking prompt and efficient justice for their assailants. Since President Bush’s inauguration, 108 vacancies have opened up on the federal courts. But as of mid-July, only three judicial nominees have been confirmed by the Senate all year long. The administrative office of the U.S. courts calls 40 of these growing number of vacancies “judicial emergencies.”
There is no excuse for many of these delays. In fact, scores of nominees approved by Senate committees have lingered for months, awaiting no further action except an up or down vote on the Senate floor. Many other nominees have waited just as long for even one hearing to be held on their nomination – and some are still waiting. The vast majority of these nominations “in limbo” have been completely uncontroversial and could have been confirmed without any delay in the consideration of legislation.
Along with other members of the Senate, a few weeks ago I tried to move this process along by urging the Democratic leadership to bring five Interior Department nominees to the Senate floor for a vote. We were successful in that effort, but have had to keep pushing to keep the confirmation door open. In terms of judicial nominees, I reminded Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, of his prior determination to approve at least three judges every week the Senate was in session. Since we have only confirmed a handful of judges all year, we are obviously far behind this goal.
The confirmation crisis has become so acute – the slowest pace on record – that significant changes need to be made to the process. I am committed to working with members of both parties on this effort, so that the men and women who take on public service assignments don’t languish for months in uncertain limbo because the Senate fails to carry out one of its fundamental responsibilities.