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From drug safety to immigration, Biden leaves key posts unfilled

Across the federal government, there are more than 400 positions requiring Senate confirmation for which the president has not yet put forward nominees.
Image: President Biden Delivers Remarks On His American Jobs Plan
President Joe Biden leaves after an event at the South Court Auditorium at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Wednesday.Alex Wong / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden approaches his 100th day in office, he has yet to fill a number of key positions throughout the federal government, which former officials and advocacy groups warn could hobble agencies responsible for the influx of migrants at the border to the safety of Covid-19 vaccines.

Across the federal government, there are more than 400 positions requiring Senate confirmation for which Biden has yet to put forward nominees, including the heads of the Food and Drug Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Office of Management and Budget.

The jobs are being filled temporarily by officials limited by their acting capacity: They are unlikely to appoint the permanent staff below them or to make any structural or cultural changes. Even once nominations are made, it can take months for nominees to make it through the confirmation process and into their permanent roles — meaning a number of agencies and departments may have no permanent leaders through the summer.

"It's the equivalent of having a substitute teacher. They could be an amazing educator, but everyone knows the substitute teacher doesn't get respect from the classroom, and they don't see themselves as owning the long-term education of the class," said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit good government group. "As a result, they are unlikely to take on the big hairy problems or things that require a long time to resolve, and people on the outside are unlikely to receive them as having much authority, certainly not long-term authority."

Filling the hundreds of positions is a slow process for any new administration. While Biden quickly filled his Cabinet despite election-related disruptions during his transition, his pace over the past month has fallen behind that of former President Barack Obama.

Biden has formally submitted 70 nominees to the Senate; Obama had put forward 109 nominees at this point in his presidency, according to the Partnership for Public Service. Biden has announced several nominees in recent days whose names have yet to go to the Senate. Former President Donald Trump, who had a disorganized and chaotic transition, submitted 45 nominations over the same time.

The State Department has the highest number of vacancies, 123, the vast majority of them ambassadorships, followed by 49 positions at the Defense Department, including the secretaries of the Air Force, the Army and the Navy, the Partnership for Public Service data show. The Energy Department has 19 openings, one of them for an administrator responsible for maintaining the country's nuclear stockpile.

As the U.S. deals with a surge of unaccompanied children at the southern border, several top immigration jobs have yet to be filled. Biden hasn't put forward nominees to run Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which have been on the front lines detaining, processing and temporarily housing the influx of migrants. He also hasn't nominated anyone to run Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has been handling immigration applications and processing asylum-seekers coming to the border.

The vacancies concern immigration advocacy groups, which say the agencies can't undergo the cultural and structural changes Biden seeks until they have permanent leaders.

"The changes in culture at a lot of the agency that will be necessary to fully implement the president's new vision for immigration will not fundamentally be possible until permanent and very strong leadership is in place at all the relevant agencies within the Department of Homeland Security," said Jorge Loweree, policy director of the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit pro-immigration group.

Asked during a briefing this month when Biden would fill the immigration posts, White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to give a timeline.

"Those are certainly important roles and ones that we are eager to fill," Psaki said. "I don't have an update on the personnel there, but we also have a number of experienced leaders, including the secretary of homeland security, who had served as deputy secretary in the past, and others throughout the agencies who are implementing our work on a daily basis."

Biden quickly filled a number of top jobs responsible for responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, but he has yet to nominate anyone to run the Food and Drug Administration, which has been central to approving Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments, as well as overseeing their safety and manufacturing.

Last month, six former FDA commissioners sent a letter calling on Biden to name a permanent commissioner quickly, arguing that the position is crucial to the response to the pandemic.

"We urge you to prioritize securing its leadership team, including through seeking the formal nomination and confirmation of an FDA Commissioner. The agency's experienced staff and its science-based regulatory processes will play a critical role in helping the nation confront the evolving pandemic," the letter says.

Several groups of physicians have called on Biden to nominate the acting commissioner, Janet Woodcock, an FDA veteran who has overseen the agency's drug review and approval process for decades. But there has been some opposition from anti-opioid advocates, who have raised concerns about past opioid approvals during her tenure.

A White House official declined to say when an FDA commissioner could be nominated. "We take seriously our obligation to find a candidate with strong technical, management and communications experience," the official said. "In the meantime, we are grateful to have strong career leadership in place."

As the government works to put together a budget for next year, Biden has yet to name a new nominee to run the Office of Budget and Management. His original nominee, Neera Tanden, was withdrawn after it appeared that she didn't have enough votes to win Senate confirmation.

"We, of course, have an acting OMB director, Shalanda Young, who is beloved by Capitol Hill, as you all know," Psaki said last week when she was asked when Biden would put forward a new nominee. "And so she is, of course, playing a very important role. But we didn't have one for some period of time, because she was only recently confirmed as the deputy and now the acting. I don't have a personnel update for you in terms of the timeline for formally nominating a replacement for OMB."

Where Biden has succeeded compared to his predecessors is in filling lower-tier political jobs that don't have to go through the Senate. Biden has filled 1,100 political posts — more than Obama or Trump had done combined in their first 100 days, Stier said.

An advantage to delaying some nominations is that it could prevent nominees from lingering in the pipeline too long, which could allow political opposition to mount — particularly if a nominee is already serving in the acting capacity. But with Democrats in control of the Senate, just one of Biden's nominees has struggled to get enough support so far.

The Senate has moved relatively quickly, having confirmed 37 nominees, with 29 more going through the confirmation process. But as the Senate increasingly turns its focus to legislative issues that will draw Republican opposition, there is likely to be less time to vote on nominees.

CORRECTION (April 12, 2021, 5:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. She is Shalanda Young, not Shlanda.