New presidents take the oath of office at noon on Jan. 20, but there's nothing stopping senators from confirming cabinet nominees before Inauguration Day. In fact, in recent decades, that's been the norm: incoming presidents announce their cabinet choices during the transition period; the Senate confirms at least some of those choices, and by the time new chief executives arrive in the Oval Office, part of their cabinet team is in place.
Around this point four years ago, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was so determined to confirm at least some of Donald Trump's cabinet in advance of his inauguration that the GOP leader chastised Democrats for being concerned with "little procedural complaints" -- such as federal ethics reviews.
Trump's Defense secretary and secretary of Homeland Security took office the same day the Republican president did. On both Barack Obama's and George W. Bush's first day in office, seven members of their respective cabinets were in place.
But when Joe Biden is sworn in tomorrow, his cabinet will be empty. The Washington Post reported:
Delayed confirmation hearings could force the incoming administration to confront a raging pandemic without a health secretary, a ravaged economy without a treasury secretary, a massive Russian cyber intrusion without secretaries to helm the Pentagon or State Department, and a wave of emboldened white nationalism without an attorney general or homeland security secretary.... Biden's nominees are already well behind schedule, according to data compiled by James King, a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming.
The crux of the article focused on the Senate's upcoming impeachment trial, which may further delay the confirmation process. It's obviously a relevant detail, as we await the House's decision to send the impeachment article against Trump to the upper chamber.
But let's not lose sight of the partisan circumstances: Mitch McConnell could've overseen a responsible and efficient process, just as Republican-led committees could've moved far more quickly to schedule hearings and consider qualified nominees before this week.
They chose not to, and that's a problem.
Lauren C. Bell, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College who studies Senate confirmations, told the Post, "I can't think of a worse time to have our executive branch so understaffed, given just the magnitude of the challenges that are taking place right now."
Senate committee will hold several confirmation hearings today for key posts -- including nominees for Defense, Homeland Security, State, and Treasury -- though even if the hearings go well, they won't be confirmed as early as tomorrow.