Donald Trump spent the four years of his presidency hollowing out the State Department. Now, as Joe Biden attempts to once again make the United States a player on the world stage, Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are continuing the mission of decimating this nation’s foreign policy apparatus.
Their weapon of choice is the Senate’s own arcane confirmation process. The consequences of their separate but equally devastating political vendettas is a scandalous backlog of high-ranking State Department officials and ambassadors now stuck in confirmation limbo.
Nine months into the Biden administration, the Senate has confirmed only two ambassadors — Ken Salazar to Mexico and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US ambassador to the United Nations. As of Tuesday, 79 other nominees to various positions at the State Department, including dozens of ambassadorships, were still pending.
Among those is that of former Massachusetts House majority leader Claire Cronin to be US ambassador to Ireland and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, widow of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, to be ambassador to Austria — two of the 30 nominees approved by voice vote in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Tuesday. Others included new ambassadors to Israel, Canada, and the European Union.
With Biden scheduled to make his second foreign trip early next month to Europe, getting key players in place takes on added importance. The administration has also this week agreed in principle to a virtual meeting between Biden and President Xi Jinping of China before the year is out — with an agenda that includes tensions over Taiwan, trade, a recently fired hypersonic missile, and human rights abuses. But thus far the nomination of longtime State Department veteran Nicholas Burns to be US ambassador to China is still pending.
These are no small matters to be held hostage to the political agendas of two individuals. Cruz is refusing to allow the nominations to go forward by the usual unanimous consent route because he wants to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would carry natural gas under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, thus bypassing US ally Ukraine. Cruz wants sanctions imposed on the Russian-backed company building the pipeline — sanctions the Biden administration has waived as a gesture to another valued ally, Germany.
Yes, foreign policy is often complicated, but not in Ted Cruz-world. And he doesn’t care if he has to bring the State Department to its knees to make his point.
Hawley’s “cause” is the disastrous nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. He’s vowing to hold up every State and Defense Department nominee until heads roll in both those places — the heads of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, among others.
The State Department is not Cruz’s only target either. The US Treasury has only four confirmed nominees of about 20 high-ranking jobs critical to the administration’s ability to tackle the global minimum tax that is slated to be the topic of upcoming talks and the issue of terrorism and financial intelligence, which becomes critical in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Yes, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer could bring each and every nomination to the floor of the Senate for a full-scale debate and vote — a process that would take time away from critical votes on the debt ceiling, the infrastructure bill, and the myriad day-to-day issues of governing.
According to a tracking system set up by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Services and The Washington Post to track 803 of the 1,200 posts requiring Senate confirmation, as of this week, 399 Biden nominees have been approved. However, that leaves 224 still stuck in the Senate.
No, this is no way to conduct the people’s business. But then, when has Ted Cruz ever cared about the people’s business. His conduct and that of Hawley are nothing short of shameless showboating, with potentially disastrous consequences.
But when a system can be rendered dysfunctional by two men, then it’s also time to look at changing the system. Part of that would mean dealing with the number of confirmations required. If hundreds can be dealt with by unanimous consent, it’s likely they shouldn’t have to go through the Senate at all. While the Senate is usually loathe to relinquish any power, it did do so in the 1980s when it cut back on the number of posts subject to a Senate vote. At the time, some 3,500 civilian jobs were subject to Senate confirmation
So nothing is impossible. However, those 200-plus nominees being held hostage by Cruz and Hawley need a more immediate solution — and that means pressure, particularly from their GOP colleagues. Someone needs to convince these two that their conduct represents a clear and present danger to this nation’s security and its place in the world.
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