Skeletal government: As Trump takes over, hundreds of jobs will be unfilled

Story highlights

  • David Gergen says delays by the Trump team and a ridiculously slow confirmation process are problematic
  • The new administration will have a potentially dangerous shortage of key officials, Gergen says

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Senate Democrats are stirring up an angry ruckus in Washington these days, questioning the qualifications of Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees and threatening to delay confirmations until they get more answers. As has often happened in past presidencies, a couple of nominees could soon go down to defeat. Even so, Republicans retain the upper hand and should prevail in most cases, perhaps nailing down posts in national security by this weekend.

But amid this furor, there is a quieter, hidden story that could turn out to be even more important: the increasingly obvious fact that even when his Cabinet is approved, Trump will still have only a shell of a team to help him lead the biggest, most complex, and most important government in the world.
Whether or not you like Trump, this is a bad way to run a country and is highly dangerous for America's well-being. The world today is teetering on disorder; uncertainty has crept into economic circles, too. From Day One, decision makers here and abroad will be looking to Trump and his team to see where they want to go and how they want to get there. He can't do this alone. Yet, most of his Cabinet and his senior staff have never served in government, much less the White House.
    When trouble strikes, he and his top counselors will desperately need seasoned pros at the sub-Cabinet level to provide advice and to carry out the policies of the President. But that substructure won't be there anytime soon.
    Consider these numbers posted Wednesday by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. By their reckoning, President Trump has 690 "key positions" to fill that require Senate confirmation. As of 48 hours before the inauguration, Trump had named only 28 of the 690, less than 4%. That means that when the Trump team goes to work on Friday afternoon, some 96% of their key offices will be empty.
    Traditionally, the four most essential departments for running the federal government are Defense, State, Treasury and Justice. Here are how many of those key positions at each the Trump team should fill:
    Defense - 53
    State - 263
    Treasury - 27
    Justice - 27
    How many nominations have been announced for each of these departments? Precious few -- only the Cabinet member in each case except for State, where the UN ambassador has also been announced. In all four of these critical departments, not a single deputy secretary, nor undersecretary, nor assistant secretary has been announced.
    To be sure, many of those positions at State are for ambassadors to small countries, and those jobs are often vacant for stretches of time. It has also been reassuring to hear that Robert Kimmitt appears to be the top choice for deputy secretary of state: He is first-rate and has deep experience in diplomacy.
    Even so, Cabinet secretaries in nearly every department will be home alone for weeks and perhaps months. Where will they turn to find trusted confidantes to consider and draw up complex solutions to public policy problems? Who will be there to manage the vast armies of civil servants who want and need crisp, clear leadership?
    Who will they send to Europe and Asia to calm jittery nerves about Trump? Who will go to possible peace talks on Syria? Or to ensure that our homeland is protected against new threats? Or to testify to numerous congressional committees demanding answers about hard problems?
    The problems of organizing a new government didn't start with Trump. As the federal government has swollen in responsibilities and size since the New Deal, the number of top posts to be filled by an incoming president has exploded. Overall, a president now has some 4,100 openings to fill; of those, 1,242 require Senate confirmation. (The 690 key positions pinpointed above are a relatively small slice of the overall numbers.)
    More to the point, the process of securing congressional confirmation has become increasingly dysfunctional, just like so much of Washington. Once upon a time, back in the Eisenhower/Kennedy days, a potential candidate filled out relatively simple forms and could be confirmed quickly. No longer. Hank Paulson, then head of Goldman Sachs, had to assemble a large team who worked two weeks nonstop to compile the paperwork he had to submit before becoming treasury secretary under George W. Bush (where he did an excellent job). And even when the paperwork is completed, Congress can hold up its investigations for literally months.
    Yet, let's be clear: The Trump team deserves criticism, too, having made the recruitment process even more cumbersome and prolonged. He smartly appointed a transition team during the fall campaign -- a must these days -- but then, mysteriously, fired his transition chief, Chris Christie, and essentially decapitated the Christie team. That was a huge blow to the process. It didn't help that many on the Trump team also invested little effort in the transition process because they were so unsure of winning. As a result, the team was behind in the transition from the start and has never fully recovered.
    Numerous reports have surfaced of how slowly the Trump leadership has sent transition teams to meet with Obama's designated transition leaders. Those who have visited have often seemed less interested in how the Obama folks have run things than how the Trump folks can change them. Like Trump himself, they see themselves as disrupters.
    One might have thought that Trump, as a CEO of a sprawling company, would have understood how essential strong management would be in government and he would have studied the most successful Republican transition in modern times -- that of Ronald Reagan.
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    After eight years as governor of California, Reagan actually knew quite a lot about organizing a government. In the midst of the 1980 campaign, Reagan asked one of the country's best headhunters, Pendleton James, to create a small team to begin identifying prospects, collecting resumes and making preliminary background checks. The process was so thorough that during his transition, when Reagan would announce a Cabinet selection, Pen would show up on the doorstep of the nominee the next day with a thick notebook listing three potential choices for each sub-Cabinet position. The nominee could make the call or ask for more names. Reagan hit the ground running.
    By contrast, the Trump team should also have studied the case of President George W. Bush. Coming off the long recount in Florida, Bush had a truncated transition. He rallied and had a surprising number of Cabinet officers confirmed by the time of his inauguration. But then the process slowed to a more traditional pace.
    We will never know if the attacks of 9/11 could have been thwarted if they had taken place later in his administration when he had a full team on the field. But we do know this from a study by Paul Light at the Brookings Institution: Seven weeks after the terrorist attacks, "half of the 164 positions involved in the war were still vacant (22%) or filled by someone who had arrived after July 1. These crucial positions included the undersecretaries of the Air Force and Army, the assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, the director of the National Institutes of Health, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and the deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration."
    Bottom line: Putting together a government has become a ridiculously long process in this country. But it is surely one of the most urgent responsibilities now for our new leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.