Throughout the history of the Republic, high-level government offices have often gone unfilled for periods of time.1 See Nina A. Mendelson, The Permissibility of Acting Officials: May the President Work Around Senate Confirmation?, 72 ADMIN. L. REV. 533, 578 (2020); see also Anne Joseph O’Connell, Actings, 120 COLUM. L. REV. 613, 638–41 (2020) (citing past research and statistical data on vacancy rates). Such vacancies occur for a variety of reasons—perhaps the President has failed to nominate a permanent officeholder, the Senate has stalled on a nominee’s confirmation vote, or the original confirmed officeholder has died, resigned, become sick, or been fired.2 See 5 U.S.C. § 3345(a) (specifying that the FVRA applies when covered Senate-confirmed officers “die. . ., resign. . ., or [are] otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of [their] office.”); see generally Ben Miller-Gootnick, Note, Boundaries of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, 56 HARV. J. ON LEGIS. 459 (2019) (contending that the FVRA does not apply to firings). Historically, regardless of the reason, extended vacancies for top positions requiring Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation (“PAS” positions) have been rare.3 See O’Connell, supra note 1, at 645, 648; see also Mendelson, supra note 1, at 582 (citing Thomas Berry, Is Matthew Whitaker’s Appointment Constitutional? An Examination of the Early Vacancies Acts, YALE J. ON REG.: NOTICE & COMMENT (2018), https://www.yalejreg.com/nc/is-matthew-whitakers-appointment-constitutional-an-examination-of-the-early-vacancies-acts-by-thomas-berry/ [https://perma.cc/NTL8-XD6F]) (“Berry elaborated further that periods of [acting] service [pre-1860], including for the ad interim appointments, generally were extremely short—on the order of days or weeks rather than months or years.”).
The Trump administration departed from this trend: it faced more vacancies for PAS positions—and filled them with longer-serving acting officials—than any prior administration for which data exists.4 See O’Connell, supra note 1, at 623, 643–57; see also ANNE JOSEPH O’CONNELL, ACTING AGENCY OFFICIALS AND DELEGATIONS OF AUTHORITY (2019), https://www.acus.gov/sites/default/files/documents/final-report-acting-agency-officials-12012019.pdf [https://perma.cc/D7CR-BX3Q] (“President Trump’s acting Secretaries have served longer, on average, than recent Administrations.”) [hereinafter O’CONNELL, ACTING AGENCY OFFICIALS]. Acting officials, who are not Senate-confirmed to the relevant position, occupied several high-level posts for years during the Trump administration.5 See BOB COHEN ET. AL, P’SHIP FOR PUB. SERV., THE REPLACEMENTS: WHY AND HOW “ACTING” OFFICIALS ARE MAKING SENATE CONFIRMATION OBSOLETE 7–8 (2020), https://ourpublicservice.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/The-Replacements-1.pdf [https://perma.cc/Z2LR-TUX8]. Some positions, such as the State Department Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, remained perennially vacant.6Id.
Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (“FVRA”), extremely long tenures of acting officials such as these must eventually come to an end. Pursuant to the FVRA, when the permissible period for acting service expires, the PAS position again becomes vacant, and “only the head of [the] agency may perform any function or duty of [the] office.”75 U.S.C. § 3348(b)(2) (2004). If someone other than the head of the agency performs the functions and duties of the again-vacant office, the resulting actions will be rendered void ab initio.85 U.S.C. § 3348(d)(1) (2004).