How Is President Biden’s DOT Nomination Pace Going?

Now that President Biden’s first year in office is almost expired, we can begin to judge his success at proposing nominees for the Department of Transportation (and the Senate’s lack of success at confirming them).

Making nominations. In terms of the White House personnel office getting its act together (making a list of candidates during the transition, getting those candidates to fill out vetting paperwork, making selections, riding herd on the FBI to do background checks, and getting the initial nomination paperwork sent to the Senate), Team Biden is running ahead of Team Trump’s pace and is competitive with Team Obama’s first-year pace. Biden has been quicker than Obama to name most DOT Assistant Secretaries and key modal administrators, and much quicker than Trump. The exceptions are the FHWA and PHMSA Administrator posts, which the Biden Administration is leaving vacant (well, the White House has designated acting Administrators, but no actual nominations have been made yet).

Trump did not get around to nominating FTA or NHTSA Administrators until after a full year had gone by, and he intentionally never made nominations to two of the Assistant Secretary of Transportation posts (the two that answered to the Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy), preferring to keep all that authority consolidated in the person of the Under Secretary.

How Many Days After Their First Inauguration Did Each President Transmit These USDOT Nominations to the Senate?
Obama Trump Biden
Secretary 0 0 0
Deputy Secretary 98 48 24
Under Secretary for Policy 56 116 97
General Counsel 91 137 272
Asst. Sec. for Policy 140 no nom. 92
Asst. Sec. for Budget/CFO 171 no nom. 82
Asst. Sec. for Govt. Aff. 50 110 82
Asst. Sec. for Aviation/Int’l 169 no nom. 97
Asst. Sec. for R & T n/a 255 97
FHWA Administrator 94 224 no nom.
FTA Administrator 100 no nom. 82
FRA Administrator 66 172 97
NHTSA Administrator 319 no nom. 274
FMCSA Administrator 178 251 85
MARAD Administrator 332 157 274
PHMSA Administrator 239 234 no nom.

Getting the Senate to confirm nominations. In this regard, each Senate gets worse than the previous Senate, and things started getting a lot worse in 2013. That was the year where Republicans were holding up judicial nominations, to the point that in November 2013, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) convinced 51 of his colleagues to use the “nuclear option” and effectively amend Senate rules to lower the number of Senators it takes to cut off debate on any non-Supreme-Court nominee from 60 down to 50 (if you have the VP) or 51 (without the Veep).

From then on, Republicans under Obama said “well, if you’re going to change the rules, then we will require a cloture vote, a 2 hour waiting period, and a roll call confirmation vote on every single nominee, no matter how minor, if they can’t get 100 Senators to support them unanimously.

Once Donald Trump took over the White House, Democrats insisted on the same treatment for all of his nominees (even fewer of which were able to get 100 for UC), slowing the process further. Now that Biden is in the White House, Republicans are still insisting that most nominees go through the same roll call plus two hours plus roll call rigamarole, which normally means that the Senate can only process 2 or 3 nominees per day, and that is if they aren’t debating any legislation. Senate floor time is the most valuable commodity in Washington DC, and determines how many nominees can be confirmed.

The following (painstakingly assembled) table shows how quickly every first-year President since Ronald Reagan made senior USDOT nominations, and how fast the Senate confirmed them. Oh, the good old days…

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