WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s Cabinet is taking shape at the slowest pace of any in modern history, with fewer than a dozen nominees for top posts confirmed more than a month into his tenure.
Among Biden’s 23 nominees with Cabinet rank, just 11 have been confirmed by the Senate, or about half. And among the 15 core nominees to lead federal agencies, 10 have been confirmed, or about two thirds.
The delay in confirmations means some departments are left without their top decision-makers as they attempt to put in place policies to address the coronavirus pandemic.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said there are a number of “big decisions” at HHS and across the federal government that are waiting on leadership from the top.
“It’s very unfortunate. And in the middle of a huge health crisis, it’s the wrong thing to do,” she said. “Civil servants are capable, but they need leadership. And they’re used to having leaders.”
Shalala was confirmed two days after President Bill Clinton was sworn in, and said she had her chain of command ready to go and could immediately dig into a long list of decisions and policy changes.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the Biden administration’s HHS nominee, will get a committee vote Wednesday, and he’s expected to receive easy confirmation. But Shalala pointed to a laundry list of issues — from oversight of hospitals, health care companies and nursing homes during the pandemic to issues surrounding drug pricing, telemedicine and child care services — that urgently need his input.
Lacking a department head, she said, “just slows everything down.”
Matt Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that tracks presidential transitions, said federal departments tend to act more conservatively around decision-making and shifting policies without the top brass in place.
“Missing the top person means that it’s pretty difficult to actually address the very big questions and to make big changes,” he said. “And there’s a natural conservatism in place when people don’t know yet what the top person is going to really want.”