On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a disaffected 23-year-old Nigerian, attempted to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. It was one of the most serious breaches of the United States' air security since September 11, 2001. And it occurred at a moment when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the body created after 9/11 specifically to prevent such breaches, had no leader. Erroll Southers -- an airport security chief in Los Angeles, former FBI agent, and professor at the University of Southern California -- is one of dozens of officials still pending confirmation: not rejected for their positions, but also not paid, not permitted to send deputies to sit in on relevant meetings, and not allowed to work provisionally. Unconfirmed appointees have no bureaucratic role at all. (Update: Southers withdrew his nomination the morning of Jan. 20, citing the political maelstrom over his appointment.)
Congressional dithering on nominees is, in and of itself, nothing new. Four years ago, Republicans were incensed over holds on judicial nominees and then-President George W. Bush's appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some senators even considered trying to change the Senate's approval requirement from 60 to 50 to help speed the process.
But President Barack Obama's first year has brought an unusual number of holds, and on unusually prominent positions. One year into the Bush administration, there were 70 appointees awaiting confirmation. One year into the Obama administration, there are 177. And dozens of those holds are directly affecting the agencies responsible for the United States' security and foreign policy, amid two wars and an amped-up terrorism threat. The United States has no ambassador to Ethiopia, no head of the Office of Legal Counsel, no director at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, no agricultural trade representative.
Indeed, the TSA spot wasn't the only one left empty when it was most needed. For instance, during the worst of the Honduran constitutional crisis, in June, the United States had no assistant undersecretary for the Western Hemisphere -- the position responsible for coordinating the response of the United States' policymakers for South America. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, had slapped a hold on Georgetown University professor and longtime diplomat Arturo Valenzuela to protest the Obama administration's relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and its response to Honduras. (Valenzuela finally won confirmation in November.)
The most absurd hold of 2009, perhaps, was on Miriam Sapiro, whom the Obama administration appointed to become a U.S. trade representative. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, held up the respected Internet policy specialist's nomination over -- really -- candy-flavored cigarettes. Big Tobacco, with Bunning on its side, wanted the Obama administration to lobby against Canada's banning of flavored cigarettes like cloves, which are particularly popular among underage smokers. According to the New York Times, Bunning lifted the hold only when Democrats agreed to put a Republican, Michael Khouri, on the Federal Maritime Commission. (In the end, Bunning didn't even attend the vote that confirmed Sapiro.)
Other holds have had only tangential relevance to the position in question. For instance, Southers isn't on hold over concerns about his work performance, political leanings, or employment history. DeMint (one of Congress's most avid holders, by reputation at least) is blocking Southers over concerns over unionization.
TSA employees aren't permitted to bargain collectively, over fears that labor negotiations or strikes might disrupt airport security. Southers, Obama, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano have said they would review the policy -- and thereby precluded the United States from having a TSA chief on the day of the attempted terrorist attack. Since the Flight 253 incident, DeMint hasn't backed down, telling Fox News, "[Allowing unionization] is the last thing we need to do right now."
Then there's Lael Brainard, a former MIT economics professor and Brookings Institution fellow. The lauded economist was tapped to be the undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, spearheading U.S. economic policy relations with international governments and institutions such as the World Bank. But her approval was held up over muck-ups on her taxes.
This year, she has not been present to negotiate the vital issue of currency exchange rates with China, for example, leaving ongoing talks to other members of the Treasury's staff. The Senate Finance Committee only just approved her, and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has said he might put another hold on her before the vote reaches the Senate floor -- not due to Brainard's politics or policies, but due to what he believes to be unfair Internal Revenue Service levies on small businesses.
The hold on Brainard's and others' key trade posts isn't just harmful in Washington. It is attracting international attention. Foreign officials have voiced concerns that the United States' inability to sew up its higher levels of office demonstrates that the country isn't going to be a reliable and committed partner in trade talks, like the still-incomplete Doha round.
Diplomatic officials in other countries also lament their empty embassies. The ambassadors to Andorra, Brazil, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, Hungary, Mauritius, Mozambique, Serbia, the Seychelles, Spain, and Uruguay -- most entirely noncontroversial -- only won approval the day before Christmas.
Indeed, in general, past confirmed diplomatic officials explain, the congressional process is harmful to the agencies impacted and, frankly, harmful to foreign relations. "The whole confirmation process is so cumbersome and lengthy; it isn't unusual to have a vacancy of a year or more for ambassadorships," explains Otto Reich, a longtime diplomat for Latin America who was put on hold three times for State Department positions.
He describes how his successor as the ambassador for Venezuela did not arrive until 14 months after he left. "The Venezuelans were furious. They said it -- not publicly -- but they said, 'This is an illustration [that] you don't think we're an important country.' We had to explain to them that this had nothing to do with Venezuela, and everything to do with our confirmation process."
Of course, the hold and other dilatory measures, including delays in committee voting, exist for a reason: to allow Congress to act as a check on the executive branch and to ensure applicants for important leadership positions receive sufficient scrutiny. But too often, they just allow for inter-congressional horse-trading. Plus, holds are a formality, taking advantage of unanimous consent rules. The hold, per se, doesn't exist. There's no ledger for it. It's just a threat to gum up Congress.
But try explaining that to an irate diplomat or a confused TSA employee, the day after an attempted attack. A year into the Obama administration, we shouldn't have to.
On the next page, see a list of unconfirmed nominees.
See the White House's list of nominees here. Below, a sample of those relevant to U.S. security and foreign policy.
David Adelman, ambassador to Singapore
Brooke Anderson, ambassador-rank representative to the United Nations
Mari Carmen Aponte, ambassador to El Salvador
George Apostolakis, commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Alan Douglas Bersin, commissioner of U.S. customs at the Department of Homeland Security
Sandford Blitz, federal co-chair of the Northern Border Regional Commission
Donald E. Booth, ambassador to Ethiopia
Rafael Borras, undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security
Charles Collyns, assistant secretary for international finance at the Treasury Department
Erin Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force
Donald Lloyd Cook, deputy administrator for defense programs at the Department of Energy
Philip Coyle, associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy
Scott DeLisi, ambassador to Nepal
Eileen Donahoe, representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council
Philip Goldberg, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department
Elizabeth Harman, assistant administrator for grants programs at FEMA
Eric Hirschhorn, undersecretary of commerce for export administration at the Department of Commerce
Michael Huerta, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration
Dawn Johnsen, assistant attorney general at the Office of Legal Counsel
Walter Jones, U.S. executive director of the African Development Bank
Allan Katz, ambassador to Portugal
Ian Kelly, U.S. representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
Frank Kendall, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology
Laura Kennedy, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament
Betty Eileen King, U.S. permanent representative at the United Nations in Geneva
Suresh Kumar, assistant secretary of commerce and director general of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service
Marisa Lago, assistant secretary of the Treasury for international markets and development
Nicole Lamb-Hale, assistant secretary for manufacturing and services at the International Trade Administration
Elizabeth Littlefield, president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation
William Magwood, commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Warren Fletcher Miller Jr., director of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management
Mary John Miller, assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial markets
David Warden Mills, assistant secretary of Commerce for export enforcement
Malcom Ross O'Neill, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, technology, and logistics
Paul Luis Oostburg Sanz, general counsel of the Navy
Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy for installations and environment
Michael Ward Punke, U.S. deputy trade representative to Geneva
Douglas Alan Rediker, U.S. alternate executive director for the International Monetary Fund
Jessie Hill Roberson, member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board
Mark Rosekind, member of the National Transportation Safety Board
Juan Francisco Sanchez, undersecretary for international trade at the Department of Commerce
Islam Ahmaed Siddiqui, chief agricultural negotiator of the Office of the United States Trade Representative
Ian Hoddy Solomon, U.S. executive director for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development at the World Bank
Erroll Gregory Southers, assistant secretary of homeland security and administrator of the Transportation Security Administration
Clifford Lee Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness
Judith Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs
Harry Thomas, ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines
Benjamin Burgess Tucker, deputy director at the Office for National Drug Control Policy
Caryn Anne Wagner, undersecretary of Homeland Security for intelligence and analysis
Solomon Brown Watson IV, general counsel of the Army
Beatrice Wilkinson Welters, ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago
Bisa Williams, ambassador to the Republic of Niger