When Kirstjen Nielsen resigned as secretary of Homeland Security and President Donald Trump named Kevin McAleenan as the department’s acting secretary, he became the fifth cabinet member currently functioning in a temporary, unconfirmed capacity.
In addition to Homeland Security, the secretary of Defense and the ambassador to the UN are in acting capacities, as are the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the Small Business Administration, and chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Other positions within Homeland Security also remain vacant, and the president now says he won’t formally nominate his acting director of Immigraiton and Customs Enforcement as originally planned.
This is a much more serious matter than one might suppose at first blush. It can compromise the government’s ability to act, harm national security and make important executive branch agencies less accountable to the American people.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much anyone other than the president can do about this problem. Unless the president sends the name of an official nominee to the Senate, no one can be confirmed as a permanent leader of one of these agencies. By law, an acting secretary may serve only 210 days without such confirmation, but he or she will have the full authority of leadership during that time.
The first consideration ought to be accountability. The Founders gave presidents the power to appoint ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, judges and other officers with “the advice and consent of the Senate.”
This check provides a layer of accountability to the American people as senators probe the backgrounds and qualifications of potential appointments to important posts. Granted, the confirmation process has become too political in recent years, especially for high-profile appointments to the Supreme Court. But when a president prefers to govern through acting appointments, he avoids the kind of scrutiny that can reveal conflicts or other problems, and he can, if he chooses, act out of a purely political intent.
The second consideration should be the integrity of the institutions being governed. An acting leader doesn’t have the longevity to implement a long-term vision for a department. In a position as important as the Secretary of Defense, this can hurt the nation’s standing with its allies and diminish the authority of the military in global troublespots.
In addition, the current acting Defense Secretary, Pat Shanahan, is under investigation for possibly providing special favors to his former employer, Boeing. This creates further uncertainty in the eyes of allies and foes alike.
Trump has said he likes using acting leaders. “It gives me more flexibility,” he told reporters in January. It also avoids messy background checks.10 comments on this story
Democrats aren’t the only ones upset by this tactic. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. She told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m looking at a lot of it from the appropriations standpoint, and that makes it difficult to plan, obviously, but also to follow up what we’ve already appropriated.”
That is another angle to the lack of accountability that comes from circumventing the Senate.
The Founders wisely established a government with three co-equal branches that act as checks on each other’s authority and power. They should work in cooperation with the Senate to provide professional and accountable leadership in important positions.
This model has helped the United States foster a reputation as a stable and credible world leader. It is too vital to abandon.