Legislators have become increasingly frustrated with delays in reviewing President Joe Biden's nomination list for senior foreign policy positions. This trend is attributed by government officials to rigorous security reviews and the knock-on effects of former President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the election results.
Almost two months after taking office, Biden has yet to nominate official candidates for many senior positions at the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other federal agencies. On several occasions, he announced nominations in January, but the White House either has not officially presented the names to Congress to start the confirmation process, or it has only last week.
During the Trump administration, Congress routinely criticized the president for leaving senior positions in the State Department vacant for months or years, saying the vacant posts hampered effective U.S. foreign policy and undermined morale in the ranks. Biden and his team vowed to reverse these trends and announced efforts to restore morale in the State Department and elsewhere. However, if the senior positions remain empty for a long time, these efforts could stall.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said investing in the State Department workforce is a top priority. "As Secretary (Antony) Blinken said, his first job will be to invest in the department's greatest asset: our people," he said Foreign policy in an email response. "Under the direction of Secretary Blinken, career professionals will always be at the center of our diplomacy, and he is committed to helping them guide it by serving in many of the highest positions in the department."
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, sees it as a top priority to find qualified Biden candidates as soon as possible, according to a spokesman for the committee.
It is not uncommon for positions in the State Department to be empty at the beginning of an administration transition. Every new government has a number of high-profile priorities both domestically and abroad, let alone amid a global pandemic. But the grace period could be coming to an end: four congressional assistants, speaking on condition of anonymity, said their bosses were angry at the delays and were keen to get the government to select more candidates to speed up the Senate confirmation process.
For example, on January 16, Biden announced Uzra Zeya as his candidate for Secretary of State for Civil Security, Democracy and Human Rights – an important position in the Foreign Ministry. However, the White House didn't officially send her nomination to the Senate until March 9. Biden's election as third-tier State Department official, Victoria Nuland, was formally nominated on February 13, but all of her papers were not submitted to the Senate by March 11, according to a Senate assistant. It took Blinken, meanwhile, about two months to file his filing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after Biden announced his name in November, a Senate adviser said. (For comparison, the aide noted that it took Rex Tillerson, Trump's former foreign secretary, about three days to get all of his records in order.)
What explains the delays?
According to several administrative officials, a big problem comes from the former president himself. Trump's refusal to accept the 2020 presidential election results repeatedly postponed the schedule for when Biden could nominate candidates for senior positions and begin the paperwork for their confirmation process – including extensive background checks to get the highest level security clearance.
To get a security clearance for a government job, the FBI and, in the case of the State Department, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security must conduct rigorous background checks. Background checks for Biden's top nominees couldn't begin until a government agency approved Biden's formal victory to approve the transition – a process that was delayed on Trump's claims he won the election and unfounded allegations of widespread electoral fraud.
"It has only had a cascading effect from then on," said an official familiar with the matter.
Administrative officials also point to new, stricter security clearance measures introduced in 2017, which means background checks can take weeks or even months for Biden candidates – especially for former diplomats like Nuland who have worked and interacted with numerous countries Countless foreign officials in their decades of careers.
Administration officials say they share some of the same frustrations as Congress and are working to keep the administration full. "The delay this had in the security clearance process has frankly become a national security issue," said a senior administration official, adding that the Biden team had been working to devote more resources to dealing with the backlog.
Senate assistants say their bosses don't want to see the past repeated under the new administration. Republicans say the delay in electoral investigation and background checks is only part of the problem and want the previously nominated candidates to get their records in order sooner.
"The government has been slow to announce candidates for the State Department and provide us with full files to move them forward," said a Republican minority spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Senator James Risch of Idaho. "We haven't even heard a name for a legal advisor in the department, which is particularly significant given the recent developments with Nord Stream 2 and the air strikes carried out in Syria," added the spokesman, referring to a controversial Russian pipeline project in Europe and Biden recent strikes against Iranian militias in Syria. "We're trying to speed up the review of government candidates, but there's only so much we can do if we don't have names or records to do due diligence."
Menendez sees it as a high priority to update the US foreign policy maker, his spokesman said. "Chairman Menendez believes that regardless of the administration, the State Department and USAID must be fully staffed with qualified candidates," said Juan Pachón, communications director for the Democratic chairman. "He and his staff endeavor to move the candidates for the Biden administration as quickly as possible and in a manner consistent with the advisory and approval responsibilities of the committee."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees nominations for the State Department and USAID, does not begin formally reviewing a candidate until the candidate's full file is complete. This file contains financial disclosure forms, ethics agreements, questionnaires showing nominees their work experience and previous articles they have written or speeches they have made, and notifications from the FBI or the Bureau of Diplomatic Security that their background checks Are completed.
Potential candidates undergo a screening process, led by the Human Resources Office of the President of the White House, prior to their appointment. The Biden administration will practically not formally nominate any new candidates until the background checks are completed, officials said, meaning there are a number of potential candidates for the State Department and other federal agencies on deck waiting for the bureaucratic backlog and bottlenecks to be cleared. Administrative officials also said they take time to research the backgrounds of potential candidates before they are selected to avoid sending candidates to the Senate without sufficient experience or checkered past – something that has become a major problem under Trump .
Trump's human resources office was scrutinized for what critics viewed as a lax scrutiny of candidates for senior administrative positions, including ambassadorial positions. (In February 2020, Politico reported that Trump had hired a college senior as one of the influential bureau's top officials) Some of Trump's nominees as ambassadors failed Disclosure of lawsuits, allegations of sexual harassment, controversial public statements in the past and in the case of a candidate for ambassador in 2008 interim disposal filed against her for "placing a bullet-riddled target sheet" in her ex-husband's doctor's office.