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Power In The White House Is Growing With Acting Agency And Cabinet Department Heads


The Senate's vote this week to confirm former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for interior secretary means there's one less temp in President Trump's cabinet. It brings the number of acting heads of agencies and Cabinet departments from 13 to 12. More than any other president, Trump has used short-term appointments to keep the government running. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports that all that churn means the power in the White House is growing as the checks and balances of the Senate start to vanish.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The Constitution is pretty clear about how the top jobs in federal government are supposed to be filled. It's right there in Article II, Section 2. The president shall nominate, and the Senate shall give advice and consent. Senator Lamar Alexander says it's a critical job with real consequences.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: But when it breaks down, we actually give the president more power because he can appoint all these acting people and ignore the United States Senate, which is just the reverse of what the founders intended.

SNELL: But the Tennessee Republican says that's not what's happening right now. Acting heads are running departments like Homeland Security and Defense and agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. And President Trump told CBS earlier this year that all that instability is by design.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.

SNELL: Trump may like it, but that's not what the Constitution intended.

ALEXANDER: Because our founders didn't want a king - so they said, we're not going to let the president have all the power.

SNELL: Unease over the instability within the Trump administration has spread in recent months as the number of vacancies and acting heads expanded. There's almost universal agreement among senators that there is a real risk in letting the standards slip too far, but there's not a lot of agreement about who's to blame or how to stop it. Louisiana Senator John Kennedy points to Democrats.

JOHN KENNEDY: I believe that at least part of the White House's thinking is that we could send over Alexander Hamilton, and the Democrats would object.

SNELL: He says Trump was forced to get creative. In many cases, the law gives presidents some latitude to use temps to fill in while a permanent replacement is confirmed. And Kennedy says it's only logical for the White House to use that wiggle room to get around some political roadblocks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says it's not just that. The Senate is doing its best to keep up with other nominees, including his pledge to fill a sea of federal court vacancies with Trump's conservative appointees.

MITCH MCCONNELL: I've got my hands full just trying to clean up the executive calendar we already have.

SNELL: McConnell downplayed the loss of power that happens when the Senate no longer has a responsibility to publicly vet and approve a nominee. He says when Trump finds a permanent agency head, the Senate will do its job.

MCCONNELL: I don't have any advice to give to the president about nominations, but I got - we got plenty of them to work on already. And if he sends up a nominee for an important position, like Cabinet post, it'll go to the front of the line. And we'll process it as early as we can.

SNELL: Florida Republican Marco Rubio has a different view. He has watched the agencies change in recent years. He says the partisan fights over nominees have been damaging to the entire process, but the lack of permanent bosses is causing serious problems.

MARCO RUBIO: I didn't used to believe that, but I've seen that when you're in an acting role, it's very different than when you're confirmed by the Senate, just in terms of the respect you command and even your control over the agency and the individuals underneath you.

SNELL: Texas Senator John Cornyn agrees with Rubio. Agency heads should be publicly vetted. They should have to be approved, and they should be there permanently.

JOHN CORNYN: It's not ideal, but it is certainly within the law.

SNELL: For all of their frustration, there's not much senators can do to exercise their constitutional power until Trump gives them permanent nominees to vote on. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.