WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump brags he’s picked “the best people” to serve in his Cabinet. But as the billionaires, business leaders, and other nominees started their march through the Capitol for confirmation hearings, it’s clear many don’t have one quality: expertise in the departments they’ll run.
There’s Betsy DeVos, the nominee for the Department of Education who has donated millions to education-related initiatives. There’s Ben Carson, neurosurgeon-turned-presidential candidate, who is set to run the housing department after initially declining an administration role because he said he lacked federal expertise.
There’s Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander who’s been a member of the House of Representatives representing Montana for two years and is now on his way to run the $20 billion Department of the Interior.
“There are so many that come without a government background, the learning curve for a number of them will be higher than usual,” observed former senator Mel Martinez, a Republican who served as George W. Bush’s secretary of housing and urban development. “In the first quarter I would look for people bumping up against places because they don’t know government.”
Of the 14 department heads that Trump has nominated so far, six have not logged significant federal government experience.
Democrats on various committees are seizing on this lack of experience as they plead for more time to scrutinize the nominees.
“They come from enormous wealth, many have vast holdings and stocks, and very few have experience in government, so they have not been appropriately vetted for something like a Cabinet post before,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the minority leader.
“They’re going to hold incredibly powerful positions for potentially the next four years. To spend an extra day or two on each nominee, even if it takes several weeks to get through them all in order to carefully consider their nominations . . . that’s well worth it,” Schumer said.
Trump has brushed off criticism about his newcomer Cabinet and expressed his characteristic confidence that everything is going to work out. That is not surprising. The real estate mogul has no government experience either, which was the underlying message — the promise, even — of his unprecedented campaign.
“Confirmation is going great,’’ Trump said last week in New York. “I think they’ll all pass. I think every nomination will be — they’re all at the highest level.”
Senator Jeff Sessions and General John Kelly, Trump’s picks to lead the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, respectively, are two of the more seasoned choices and their hearings went fairly smoothly last week.
Carson faced questions Thursday from Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, about his lack of qualifications in housing and finance. He responded by citing his own family’s experience with housing insecurity when he was a child, when his family was forced to move from Detroit to Boston. And he said a good chief executive doesn’t need to know all the details of running a company, but must appoint good people with the right skills.
Two hearings were delayed last week, with announcements that DeVos’s examination would be pushed to Tuesday at 5 p.m. It’s a highly unusual time for a hearing and ensures that, DeVos, a political neophyte, won’t walk into the buzzsaw of a Senate confirmation hearing under the full glare of live television.
Also Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, who runs the fast food chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., could be put off, likely until next month.
Adam Jentleson, who was a staffer to former Senate minority leader Harry Reid and is now at the liberal Center for American Progress, said new presidents will often pick one or two Cabinet secretaries who are true outsiders, but selecting what is almost an entire Cabinet of newcomers is different.
“This was like Trump was just picking names out of a hat,” he said. “Why is Ben Carson running HUD? Why is Nikki Haley the ambassador to the United Nations? It shows that he cares more about doling out favors to his cronies than having people who know what they’re doing running the government.”
A spokesman for Trump’s transition team didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s decision to pick outsiders fulfills a campaign promise to remake Washington. His voters were not interested in the status quo.
“I actually think that being an outsider can be a plus,” said Gary Locke, the former Washington governor who served as a commerce secretary for President Obama. “You bring a new perspective.”
But he had a warning for Trump’s class of department heads: “The bureaucracy of the federal government can be rather numbing,” Locke said.
He noted that some sections of the Commerce Department, for example, are staffed with thousands of career civil servants and only a handful of the political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the secretary.
“You have to work with career people who have a certain way of doing things. It can be difficult,” he said.
Criticism over experience, or lack thereof, is often deployed by either side for partisan gain. The Republican Party spent a good part of the last eight years complaining that Barack Obama, who served one Senate term before elevating to the presidency, lacked the experience needed to run the country.
He made fairly traditional picks for his top positions however, constructing a government that was relatively scandal-free. But on policy, expertise didn’t necessarily guarantee a positive result.
“What we learned in the Obama era is having really smart people in positions of power is not nearly enough,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a self-described liberal. “We really need to question this technocratic practice that liberals use.”
Hamid pointed to Obama’s policy in Syria, a country that descended into one of the worst humanitarian disasters since World War II on Obama’s watch.
“How come the Middle East is more violent and more of a disaster writ large eight years after Obama came to power, despite having very smart people?” he asked.
Instead of subject area expertise, he said, he’s looking for evidence that Trump’s Cabinet picks have shown good judgment, are curious about the departments they’ll run, are seeking outside counsel, and are willing to listen and change course if their instincts prove to be wrong.
“We are having a fundamental crisis in trust of government,” he said. “Technocrats, it’s not enough. People are losing faith in this idea of handing over policy to experts who ‘know best.’ We have to be self-critical.”
Martinez, who was Bush’s housing secretary, agreed.
“A key to success is the nominee has to have a willingness to learn, and get after it, and get informed on the issues,” he said.
He said that he was in contact with Carson to help him prepare for his hearings to be housing secretary and has been impressed.
“He’s been very energized in educating himself on the specifics of the issues,” Martinez said. “His heart is totally in their right place.”
One Trump Cabinet pick in particular has a ways to go in displaying that kind of curiosity: Rick Perry.
The former Texas governor has been tapped to run the Department of Energy, a federal bureaucracy that is now run by Ernest Moniz, an MIT-educated physicist, and one that Perry once proposed eliminating.
The Energy Department was not initially in Perry’s mental orbit. When asked which three departments he’d proposed eliminating during a November 2011 debate when he sought the presidency himself, he could remember only two of them. He couldn’t call up the name of the department he is now set to lead.