Author: Abigail Sia, Johns Hopkins University
After taking seven weeks off to focus on the midterm elections, the Senate returned to Washington last Wednesday to wrap up the remaining legislative business of the 113th Congress. Current Majority Leader Harry Reid has just a few short weeks to push through the last bits of the Democrats’ legislative agenda before the Republicans officially take control of the Senate. There’s a lot on this agenda, including securing funding for both the 1,500 additional troops that President Obama will be sending to Iraq to aid in the fight against ISIS as well as the Administration’s efforts to combat Ebola. There is, however, another priority that should be at or near the top of this list: confirming the nearly 200 presidential nominees, a list that includes Loretta Lynch, who has been nominated to succeed outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. But another issue of equal importance is not getting the grab of the media. Congress must confirm the roughly 47 ambassadors-designate, 35 of which have made it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and are ready for consideration on the Senate floor. These appointments are incredibly urgent, as they are currently prohibiting many US diplomats from assuming their posts at US embassies around the world.
In what has become yet another symbol of dysfunction in the legislative branch, many of these ambassadors have become the unwilling victims of a turf fight over Senate rules between the Democrats and the Republicans. Originally, a 60-vote supermajority was required to limit debate (“invoke cloture”) on the confirmation of any presidential nominee and move to a final confirmation vote; thus, any senator, in the grand deliberative tradition of the Senate, could technically launch a filibuster in order to delay the cloture vote. The number of Senate filibusters has ballooned in the last 5 years, and Republicans have become increasingly accustomed to using them to block presidential nominees. In February 2013, Republicans filibustered the confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel over demands for more information on the 2012 Benghazi consulate attack – the first time confirmation hearings for a Secretary of Defense had ever seen a filibuster.
Tensions came to a head on November 21, 2013, when Democrats, fed up with the GOP’s continued obstruction of three nominees for the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia Circuit, invoked what is known as the “nuclear option.” In a rare parliamentary shift, confirmation hearings now require a 51-vote simple majority in order to invoke cloture and move to a final confirmation vote. Thus, the change has essentially eliminated any senator’s ability to filibuster a confirmation hearing, as any party with a firm grip on the Senate can easily bring any such play to an end. Theoretically, it was supposed to speed up confirmations – if anything, it has only slowed them down.
Ambassadors were once confirmed en bloc, usually at the end of a legislative session. However, the rule change has offended and upset many Republicans, who accuse Democrats of committing a “power grab” (to use the words of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) in a Senate that has traditionally prided itself on being one of the most minority-friendly and deliberative legislative bodies in the world. Now, instead of confirming groups of ambassadors at once and sending them off to begin their work abroad, the GOP has dug in its heels and forced individual considerations of virtually every candidate. Under the nuclear option, debate is limited to 30 hours – but Republicans have often pushed days’ worth of procedural debates and ploys in order to delay the cloture vote for as long as possible. This has led to long evening sessions and even working weekends, and since the Senate has so much on its plate, perhaps that has led to a certain reluctance on Senator Reid’s part to schedule confirmation votes.
According to the State Department, the average waiting time for a nominee to be confirmed is now roughly 7 months. It would be one thing if any senator – Republican or Democrat – held up the confirmation of an inept political appointee who received the nomination for being a “bundler” and bringing in huge amounts of money to President Obama’s campaign. There are certainly quite a few of those among the waiting bloc of nominees: the ambassador-designate to Norway, George J. Tsunis, embarrassingly described one of Norway’s ruling political parties as “extremist” during his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee; the nominee to fill the post in Buenos Aires, Noah Mamet, admitted he does not speak Spanish and has never visited Argentina before; and the ambassador-designate to Budapest, Collen Bradley Bell, a former soap opera producer, was unable to describe specific US strategic interests in Hungary. But most of the 35 nominees awaiting a final vote on the Senate floor are career diplomats who have been stuck in the waiting limbo.
The best recent example of the unfortunate fate of many career nominees is John F. Tefft, currently US Ambassador to Russia. In fact, the Senate almost failed to confirm his appointment to fill the crucial diplomatic post that had been vacant since February. Tefft’s credentials were virtually incontestable: he has served in the Foreign Service for over 40 years and was previously the United States Ambassador to Lithuania, Georgia, and Ukraine. Despite Tefft’s background and the maelstrom of issues in US-Russia relations – violence in eastern Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, to name a few – Senator Mike Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming, deliberately blocked Tefft’s confirmation. In a last-minute attempt to get some ambassadors to their post before the Senate adjourned for its August break, Senator Robert Mendenez (Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), tried to move a group of nominees to the floor for consideration on the evening of July 31. However, Enzi objected, citing lingering GOP anger with the Democrats’ decision to invoke the nuclear option. The Senate held another vote later that night, and Ambassador Tefft was confirmed and dispatched to Moscow. He is one of the lucky ones – other career nominations have been languishing in the Senate for over a year. The fact that career nominations are particularly hard-hit has drawn severe ire from the State Department, and Secretary of State John Kerry (former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) has called on the Senate numerous times to confirm them en bloc similar to how military promotions and appointments are awarded.
The deplorable delay in confirming many of these nominees has already severely hobbled US diplomacy around the world. In April, when Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, US embassies in Niger and Cameroon – neighboring countries critical to coordinated efforts to find the girls, as well as places where Boko Haram could have hidden their captives – both lacked a US ambassador. Over the summer, when the American public was preoccupied with the “unaccompanied minor” crisis at the US-Mexico border and Sierra Leone was already suffering from the worst Ebola outbreak in history, the ambassadors-designate to both Guatemala (one of the biggest sources of the migrant children) and Sierra Leone were awaiting their confirmations – both were not confirmed until September. When the United States was seeking to build an international coalition to fight ISIS also in September, efforts were hampered by the fact that the US did not yet have an ambassador to Turkey; instead, President Obama had to send the ambassador who had held the post under the Bush/Cheney administration to engage in early negotiations.
When an ambassadorial post is unoccupied, the embassy does not grind to a halt; instead, the Deputy Chief of Mission (second-in-command under the ambassador) assumes charge as Chargé d’Affaires. However, a chargé does not wield nearly the same amount of influence as an ambassador and cannot speak to foreign heads of state or government or even senior diplomatic officials with the same rank and gravitas as an ambassador. It is harder for chargés to secure important meetings that would advance US diplomatic priorities. Additionally, an empty ambassador post sends a message, intended or not, that the United States does not attach much importance to its relationship with that country. When Turkey inaugurated its new president in August, there was no US ambassador to attend the ceremony – the chargé attended instead (and remember that Turkey is a crucial partner in the fight against ISIS). At one point over the summer, over 25 percent of ambassadorial posts around the world (including roughly 25 percent of posts in Africa) were empty while ambassadors-designate awaited confirmation. What kind of message does this send to other countries, allies and adversaries alike?
Many of the empty posts are located in countries normally written off when considering world affairs: Albania, Armenia, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Fiji, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Montenegro, Palau, and Timor-Leste, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, just to name a few. However, by the very nature of international affairs, we never know when our focus will turn to one previously-obscure country. How many people predicted that Ukraine, of all places, would become the focal point of the world’s attention earlier this year? As Russia grows increasingly inflexible and China is beginning to exert its growing influence in Asia, even the most innocuous of countries are gaining more and more strategic importance. Who knows what pressure Moscow might exert on the former Soviet state of Armenia? As China moves along with its intentions to build a new “Silk Road” to connect Asian and European markets, its proposed plans would cut through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And as Beijing becomes more assertive in the South China Sea, Vietnam is angling for closer relations with the United States. Meanwhile, Fiji just returned to democracy after nearly 8 years of military rule, and Costa Rica has been one of the most stable democracies in the developing world. Each country has some element of strategic interest for the United States, however difficult to detect, and we never know when the next country will take its place in the sun.
On top of its detrimental effects to American diplomacy, the Senate’s obstinate delay has created yet another problem: it has a huge backlog of nominations to clear along with its other legislative priorities before the close of the 113th Congress and the end of Democratic control of the Senate. GOP senators have already made subtle implications that President Obama’s nominees will receive closer scrutiny when they take control, therefore hinting that it will be even harder to confirm anyone. Those already awaiting confirmation could languish in limbo even longer. It remains to be seen if the Republicans in this lame-duck Senate will become even more stubborn in their determination to hold up presidential appointments, and the Administration would do well to withdraw its nominations for the more inept political appointments. But for the sake of American foreign relations, the Democrats should move to confirm these diplomats, and it should move quickly – otherwise, who knows what will happen to these ambassadorial posts when the Senate changes hands?