Upon entering the White House, each new president must fill 22 cabinet-level positions, from the Secretary of State to the Administrator of the Small Business Administration. These officials tend to get less media attention than Congress people, but they ensure the proper day-to-day function of the government, in line with the administration’s principles. Conventionally, to minimize disorder in the most crucial departments like State and Homeland Security, Senate confirmation hearings for these nominees are held in the last days of the previous presidency, so that the new president’s candidates can be approved right away.
Following this process, nine of George W. Bush’s cabinet secretaries were in place in the first two days of his administration, as were 12 of Barack Obama’s. Hearings for President Trump’s nominees began January 10, 2017, but so far the earliest hearings for Biden’s cabinet candidates are only on January 19th, the day before the inauguration. As he has done many times before, outgoing Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), is using his control of the Senate calendar to inflict as much pain as possible on Democrats at the expense of the functionality of our government.
Cabinet secretaries are crucial because it is their responsibility to turn the bills passed by Congress into specific regulation of immigration, agriculture, pollution, and many other topics. As the government has become more partisan, and Congress less functional, this act of translation has become ever more significant. Donald Trump’s cabinet was able to separate children from their parents at the southern border, weaken limits on water pollution, and shrink national monuments, all without legislation, and the extremely narrow majorities Democrats will have in both houses of Congress promise to keep the work of the Cabinet essential and partisan for at least the first two years of President Biden’s term.
Though he was one of the most moderate candidates in the Democratic Primary last year, Biden says he plans a number of bold steps to reverse Trump’s disastrous policies on the environment and immigration. The power of acting secretaries is too limited to do this, much less craft new regulations of their own. And the longer programs stay in effect, the harder it will be to remove them. If Biden is really to end Trump’s right-wing deregulatory legacy, he needs the personnel to start doing so on day one.