With the Senate confirmation of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on Monday, President Biden’s Cabinet became fully complete on the sixty-second day of his presidency.
I was curious as to whether this was an unusually long process, or in line with Biden’s recent predecessors. To find out, I went back to the Carter Administration to see how this procedure has changed over the past few decades.
A quick note before we begin. I’m excluding Cabinet-level offices from this accounting because different Presidents promote and demote various positions during their tenures. For instance, Donald Trump put the CIA Director in the Cabinet, while Joe Biden switched it out with the Director of Science and Technology Policy. This article will track, and chart the growth of, the fourteen main departments.
Back in the late 1970s, when President Biden was still just a freshman Senator, all of Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet officers were filled only in a week’s time. In fact, eight of them were confirmed by a voice vote on the same day Carter was inaugurated. The remaining three got actual votes in the Senate on successive days from Jan. 24th-26th.
Before we move on, though, it’s imperative that we point out that Carter significantly grew the Cabinet by adding three new departments (Education, Energy and Health & Human Services).
Ronald Reagan took office with the first Republican-controlled Senate in decades, and in contrast to Carter and his Democratic majority, the GOP chose to hold actual roll call votes. Through the first three days of Reagan’s Administration, nearly every officer was confirmed by overwhelming majorities.
The one exception was Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, who was dealing with accusations that his construction company was involved in corruption and racketeering. A quick FBI investigation failed to find any corroboration of these charges, so Donovan was confirmed by a 80-17 vote on February 3rd.
George H.W. Bush got the rare direct promotion from the voters to move from the Naval Observatory to the White House. As part of this Reagan-Bush transition, three Cabinet members were held over.
Bush was also the only President on this list whose first Cabinet had to face a Senate controlled by the opposing party. Nonetheless, eight of his ten nominees quickly passed unanimously, while another received only a single dissent. This all changed, though, when a gigantic fight broke out over his choice of John Tower for Secretary of Defense.
Tower, himself a former Senator, was beset by allegations of drinking, womanizing and conflicts of influence. This prompted furious debate in the Senate, where those three vices were not exactly rarities. The Bush White House and the GOP went all-out for Tower, but the votes simply weren’t there. When Tower’s nomination failed 47-53, Bush reached out to someone who could win a swift approval: Dick Cheney. On March 17th, Cheney was unanimously confirmed.
I also must point out that, early in his tenure, Bush oversaw the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Bill Clinton, who took office with a large Democratic majority in the Senate, nearly pitched a perfect game with his Cabinet. 13 of his 14 nominees were approved by voice vote within his first two days. Filling the role of Attorney General, however, proved to be a nightmare for the 42nd President.
As I’ve detailed before, Clinton saw his first two choices scuttled by questions about employing undocumented immigrants as nannies. The third time ended up being the charm for Janet Reno, who won unanimous approval when this was all finally settled on March 11th.
In a way, George W. Bush’s experience is the closest comparison we have for Joe Biden, since they both faced a 50-50 Senate to start off their terms. Bush ultimately had one of the easiest roads of any Chief Executive, as most officers got simple voice vote confirmations. The only real controversy concerned Attorney General John Ashcroft, who Democrats unsuccessfully sought to defeat. His 58-42 confirmation on February 1st wrapped up the quickest Cabinet confirmation process since Jimmy Carter.
Bush also oversaw the latest addition to the traditional Cabinet: the Department of Homeland Security.
Barack Obama was inaugurated with the largest Senate majority since Carter, yet he took the longest time of anyone on this list to fully complete his Cabinet. After nine secretaries got quick unanimous promotions, and Defense Secretary Bob Gates was carried over, the process slowed considerably.
The hang-up was due to a couple of prolonged processes. It began when the first choice for Commerce Secretary, Bill Richardson, had to withdraw due to ethical considerations. This issue was exacerbated when second choice Judd Gregg got cold feet. Gary Locke was finally confirmed to the position by voice vote on March 24th.
Given that President Obama’s lasting legacy would be healthcare reform, it’s a bit ironic that his longest vacancy was the Department of Health and Human Services. The initial choice, Tom Daschle, had to drop out when it was revealed that he hadn’t paid taxes on a limo and chauffeur. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebileus was eventually picked to replace Daschle, but wasn’t confirmed until April 28th.
By the time we got to the Trump Administration, the tradition of confirming Cabinet nominees by voice vote was gone. Just one of his choices, VA Secretary David Shulkin, was unanimously confirmed. Only three of them ended up filled by the end of January.
Trump’s troubles were the result of a combination of both poor planning and controversial nominees. For example, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s nomination wasn’t announced until the day before Trump’s Inauguration. While Perdue ended up securing a healthy 87 votes for his nomination, the vote didn’t occur until April 24th.
On the other hand, Trump was forced to withdraw his first choice for Labor Secretary, Carl’s Jr CEO Andrew Puzder, when Republicans tired of defending his myriad liabilities. Trump then turned to a former U.S. Prosecutor Alex Acosta who, despite criticism over his lenient plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein, won a 60-38 confirmation vote on April 27th (coincidentally or not, only one day ahead of Barack Obama’s pace).
Looking back, it’s fair to say that Joe Biden kept a steady pace with recent Administrations. While he took much longer than Carter, Reagan or Bush 43, he put together a full Cabinet far quicker than Obama or Trump. Biden resides in the middle of this timeline with Bush 41 and Clinton. Given the rather unique circumstances, including COVID restrictions and a second Trump impeachment trial, that’s a fine result for the 46th President.