America’s Top Diplomats and Generals Are Stuck in Senate Purgatory

Republican lawmakers are issuing sweeping blocks on State Department and Pentagon nominees.

Five men, members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wear suits as they sit at a long table during a committee hearing. Most of the men are looking down as they flip through papers.
Five men, members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wear suits as they sit at a long table during a committee hearing. Most of the men are looking down as they flip through papers.
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee members listen to testimony about Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 26. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While Tom Shannon climbed through the top ranks of the senior diplomatic service, he spent a cumulative year in limbo: From first being tapped as ambassador to Brazil to ascending to the third-ranking post at the U.S. State Department, his confirmation to those posts were put on pause for months on end, held up by lawmakers who had problems with the White House.

While Tom Shannon climbed through the top ranks of the senior diplomatic service, he spent a cumulative year in limbo: From first being tapped as ambassador to Brazil to ascending to the third-ranking post at the U.S. State Department, his confirmation to those posts were put on pause for months on end, held up by lawmakers who had problems with the White House.

Senators on both sides of the aisle have often held nominees for key diplomatic and national security posts that require congressional confirmation as leverage over the executive branch on specific issues. It’s a routine part of the balance of power, and a major way that legislators can influence an administration’s foreign policy. But the practice of holding up nominees is becoming more frequent, more pervasive, and much more indiscriminate, say current and former officials, including Shannon.

Dozens of important national security posts are now sitting empty at a dangerous era in U.S. foreign policy due to Republican congressional holds as threats proliferate, from Russia’s war in Ukraine to China’s rise as a global superpower.

The latest trend entails what congressional insiders call “blanket holds”—stalling an entire batch of nominees sitting before a committee regardless of those nominees’ relevance to the issue in question that caused a senator to pump the brakes on the nomination process. As a result, the Senate confirmation process is slowing to a crawl, leading national security experts and even lawmakers within that system to note that noxious political infighting on Capitol Hill is worse than ever before, and starting to erode the day-to-day functioning of national security and diplomacy.

Republican lawmakers have used sweeping blanket holds on nominees at the State and Defense departments in a bid to pressure the Biden administration in recent years, increasingly over issues that don’t pertain at all to those nominees.

“These blanket holds are not surgical or strategic. They’re being used as a club,” Shannon said. “We all know that Congress, in the areas of foreign policy, has blunt tools. But having a blunt tool doesn’t have to mean you use them bluntly or stupidly.”

Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville has blocked roughly 250 senior Pentagon civilian nominees and military promotions for five months in protest of the Biden administration’s policies of providing abortion access to troops. Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance announced this month that he will hold all Justice Department nominees, except U.S. marshals, to protest former President Donald Trump’s prosecution on 37 charges of illegal handling of classified information, obstruction, and other violations.. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2021 held up dozens of State Department nominees for months in a bid to pressure the Biden administration to sanction a controversial Russian gas pipeline in Europe. Biden eventually did so, on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the following year.

Another round of blanket holds has now hit the State Department. The libertarian-leaning Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul declared this month that he would hold up all nominees before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until the Biden administration released documents pertaining to the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. His decision traps 37 nominees for senior diplomatic and aid posts before the committee, according to congressional records and Senate aides tracking the matter.

A meeting at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month revealed the mounting tensions between senators on both sides of the aisle over blanket holds on State Department nominees, as well as how the politically contentious debates over the origins of the coronavirus are seeping into national security. During a heated back-and-forth, some senators voiced concerns that ambassador posts sitting empty for months on end or longer only strengthen the hand and influence of U.S. adversaries like Russia and China.

During that meeting, Paul said that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, wasn’t doing enough to help grant him access to internal documents on the origins of COVID-19 and U.S. government-funded scientific research programs on dangerous viruses. Menendez said Paul had the right to hold nominees and request more documents, but added that “we also have the responsibility of facing the consequences when something happens in a country and we do not have an ambassador there.”

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, at that same meeting, voiced frustration at the situation. “Please, give him the data that he wants. The conspiracy theorists, if you do not get [them] the data, are convinced it is worse than the reality. Just give him the data, for Pete’s sake, number one,” he said. “Number two, these holds on ambassadors and the time that we all take to confirm ambassadors is very harmful to our country,” he said, citing countries in Latin America, such as Colombia, that haven’t had a U.S. ambassador in place in more than a year.

In a statement to Foreign Policy, Paul disputed the notion that a blanket hold on all nominees before Foreign Relations Committee was undermining U.S. national security. “Doing nothing to prevent the next worldwide pandemic that could kill millions is the real national security threat. To date, Democrat Chairman [sic] are aiding and abetting the Biden administration by blocking access to unclassified documents that show the US government funded the dangerous research in Wuhan that led to the COVID pandemic.”

U.S. intelligence agencies in a new report released last week said they remained unable to pinpoint the origins of COVID-19, but a lab in Wuhan, China, at the center of the debate didn’t conduct engineering on relevant viruses before the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. Some U.S. agencies assessed that the pandemic was sparked by a “laboratory-related incident,” but others said they weren’t able to determine the cause.

Even aside from the holds related to COVID, the Senate confirmation process has become much slower and more politically contentious, according to data and interviews with multiple current and former senior U.S. diplomats and defense officials. It’s a problem that’s worsened under both Democratic- and Republican-controlled White Houses and Senates.

The average Senate confirmation process for a presidential appointee under former President Ronald Reagan was 56.4 days, according to data from the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that tracks the data. Three decades later, under Trump, that process doubled to 115 days. Under Biden, the average has ballooned to 127 days.

“I don’t know any other country that has this problem,” said Shannon, who served in the foreign service for three decades.

Under the current system, a president nominates senior officials to posts across federal agencies, and then those nominees go to the Senate for confirmation votes. A single senator can place a hold on any nominee, a process that forces a full vote on nominees rather than through an expedited “unanimous consent” process, gumming up the works in a Senate log-jammed with conflicting priorities. In the complex and arcane world of legislative procedure, scheduling a vote can take up valuable floor time reserved for important domestic agendas, such as major pieces of legislation or federal judicial nominees, leaving national security nominees in limbo.

On the Pentagon side, Tuberville’s continued blanket hold on nominees and military promotions is expected to affect 650 people by the year’s end if it continues, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CBS News. The Pentagon called it a “dangerous precedent.”

The holds are preventing military leaders from assuming critical new command positions, such as the commanders of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific, and the U.S. military representative to NATO. This hold prompted seven former defense secretaries under Democratic and Republican administrations to issue an unusual joint letter last month, addressed directly to Senate leaders, urging the holds be lifted.

“If this blanket hold is not lifted, nearly 80 three- and four-star commanders who are ending their terms in the coming months will not be able to be replaced,” they wrote. “[W]e believe placing a hold on all uniformed nominees risks turning military officers into political pawns, holding them responsible for a policy decision made by their civilian leaders.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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