2,367 days ago (6 years and 6 months ago), the last U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights left office after serving in that position for over 7 years. (By way of full disclosure, I was that last Special Envoy.) The North Korean Human Rights Act, which established the position of Special Envoy, was extended and reauthorized by the Congress several times since the legislation was first adopted in 2004. The most recent reauthorization of the legislation was signed by the President in July 2018, and the legislation again called for appointment of a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights.
After a nearly five year delay, President Joe Biden nominated Julie Turner earlier this year as Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights. On May 17 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a public confirmation hearing at which she discussed her views on human rights in North Korea and responded to questions from Senators serving on the Committee. On June 1, the Committee approved her nomination without objection and without controversy, and the nomination was formally submitted for consideration by the full Senate. No objection or concern about Turner’s nomination to serve as Special Envoy has ever been raised. Six weeks later, however, the nomination remains an item of pending business on the U.S. Senate Executive Calendar (item 213) with no indication yet that any Senate action is imminent. Six months after the nomination was submitted, that important position still remains vacant.
In 2009, when I was nominated to be the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, the process was considerably faster. The nomination by President Barack Obama was sent to the Senate on September 25, 2009, and the voice vote to confirm me was taken by the Senate on November 20, 2009. My confirmation from start to finish took less than two months. The delay in the confirmation of Julie Turner is the consequence of the growing dysfunction in the Congress.
Signs of Dysfunction: Marine Corps Without a Senate-Confirmed Commandant
The failure of the U.S. Senate to take action on the nomination of Julie Turner is only one of the many indications of the inability of the Senate and House of Representatives to approve routine government measures that require Congressional authorization. One of the latest and probably the most glaring example of the Senate’s inability to function is the failure to confirm the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
For the first time in well over a century (December 1, 1910-February 2, 1911), the Marine Corps has an acting commandant because the Senate has not been able to take a vote to confirm a new Marine Corps commandant. The previous commandant, Gen. David H. Berger, served in that position from July 2019 until retiring just a few days ago. By law, a Marine Corps officer may serve as Commandant for only four years. Gen. Berger stepped down as the law requires, but the Senate failed to confirm a successor.
A new commandant candidate was nominated by President Biden, and the Senate Armed Services Committee vetted and approved the candidate to be the next commandant. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), however, has objected to the full Senate taking a vote upon that appointment. The use of a “hold,” an arcane and outdated Senate rules permit objections of a single senator of the one hundred members of the Senate to prevent action on a nomination. Tuberville has not only prevented the Senate from confirming the Marine Corps commandant, but in the last several months, he has also prevented action on another one hundred and fifty individuals nominated and approved by the relevant Senate committee to serve in senior military positions requiring Senate confirmation.
Tuberville’s action to prevent military confirmations has nothing to do with differences on military policy or questions about the competence of any of the Defense Department nominees he is preventing from being confirmed. The reason Senate confirmation of key military leaders is being blocked that Tuberville opposes the Defense Department’s policy to support military personnel traveling to another state from the state where they are stationed if they seek abortion or reproductive services which are not available in the state where they are posted.
Failure to Extend the North Korean Human Rights Act – Another Sign of Congressional Dysfunction
In January of this year, it required five days and fifteen votes before the fractured and fractious U.S. House of Representatives could elect a Speaker of the House. That painful spectacle was unfortunately only a foretaste of the difficulties that lay ahead. The inability of Congress to reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act, which establishes the position of Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, is another clear sign of the Congressional dysfunction that we have been witnessing.
The North Korean Human Rights Act is not a controversial issue. The legislation was approved by voice votes on most occasions in the House and the Senate, and on the one or two occasions when a recorded vote has been taken, the vote in support of the legislation has been overwhelming.
As a general rule, legislation like the North Korean Human Rights Act is in place for four or five years, and if the Congress wishes the legislation to remain in force it must “reauthorize” or vote to extend the law for another four or five years. The North Korean Human Rights Act was adopted in 2004, extended for four years in 2008, and extended for five years 2012. The legislation was again extended in 2018 for another four years, but Congress was unable to complete the process of reauthorization in 2022. The Senate completed action on extending the North Korean Human Rights Act in December 2022 during the final few days before Congress adjourned, but the House of Representatives failed to act on the legislation.
In the new Congress which began in January of this year, versions of legislation to reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act have been introduced in both the Senate and the House. Consistent with past practice, the legislation has been introduced with broad bipartisan support.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced Senate reauthorization legislation S. 584 on March 1, 2023, and he was joined by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). This Senate version of the legislation was cosponsored three weeks after its introduction by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). The legislation extends the provisions of North Korean Human Rights Act for the next five years until 2028. Senators Rubio and Kaine are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and both have been leading supporters of this legislation in the past. The two senators were also the sponsors of the reauthorization legislation introduced and approved by the Senate in 2022.
On April 28, 2023, the House of Representatives version of the legislation H.R. 3012 was introduced by Congresswoman Young Kim (R-CA) with Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) as the principal cosponsor. That legislation was subsequently cosponsored by Congressmen Ed Case (D-HI) and Earl L. Carter (R-GA). The language of the House version of the reauthorization legislation is almost identical with the Senate version, although there are a few minor differences in the introductory provisions. The House draft legislation notes that the position of Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights has been vacant for six years, and it includes the statement that “Julie Turner, Nominee for Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues, should be confirmed without delay.”
Although the legislation to reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act has been introduced in both the Senate and the House, the legislation is non-controversial and has virtually unanimous support, getting the legislation adopted by both houses of Congress has been more difficult than it should be.
Senate Action to Confirm State Department Nominees Is on Hold
The use of a “hold” to clock confirmations can be done even when there is no connection whatsoever between the duties of the individuals nominated and the issue a single senator does not like.
The confirmation by the full Senate of scores of State Department nominees, including the nomination of Julie Turner as Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, is being held up by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier Senator Paul said he would hold up all nominees before the Foreign Relations Committee “until the Biden administration released documents pertaining to the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.” There is no link whatever between the individuals nominated to serve U.S. foreign policy interests and the documents on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. The senator from Kentucky has made no effort whatsoever to explain what justification or relevance there is between the important diplomatic activities of senior State Department officials and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Placing a “hold” on Senate approval of nominations is technically only advance warning that the Senator involved will demand a roll call vote on every single nomination in the spurious category the Senator has picked out. The usual Senate procedure is to vote on non-controversial nominations by “voice vote,” which takes a few minutes at the end of the legislative day to confirm a significant number of nominees. The “hold” prevents the Senate from quickly approving the nominations that have been thoroughly vetted by Senate committees by unanimous consent or voice vote. A single vote according to Senate rules should be 15 minutes, but calling the names of each individual senator and getting a response, and then recalling the names of those who were not present when their name was called the first time takes an hour or more. Thousands of individuals are nominated and most are confirmed each year. To conduct a recorded vote for every nomination would take up more time than the Senate is in session.
An indication of the dysfunction in the Senate is the number of Senators who publicly announce a blanket hold on nominations for one category or another. Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) announced that he would put a “blanket hold” on all nominations for individual confirmations from the Department of Justice, except nominations for the U.S. Marshals Service. Vance’s office press release does not have a date indicated for his on-line version of the release, but news reports of his action indicate that it was issued on June 13, 2023.
In May 2022, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) denounced President Joe Biden’s “appeasement” of “the illegitimate communist Cuban regime,” which he called “DISGUSTING.” He announced “I will be holding ALL relevant nominees that have been reported favorably by committees to the Senate Floor until the decision is reversed.” The Cuban vote in Florida is important to Rick Scott, but it is not clear why preventing the confirmation of nominations will change the policy. There was never any explanation of what “changes” or decisions need to be reversed.
In the wee hours of the morning on August 11, 2021, shortly before the Senate recessed until after Labor Day, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) went to the Senate floor to seek confirmation of some 30 individuals who had been nominated by the President to serve in senior diplomatic posts in the State Department. They had been vetted by the Committee, approved by the Committee with bi-partisan support, and required only a final Senate voice vote of approval to assume their foreign affairs duties. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the principal figure holding up the confirmation of these diplomats, refused to budge.
In his speech to the Senate that evening, Chairman Menendez (D-NJ) highlighted the consequences of senators putting a “hold” on confirming nominations for various spurious reasons. “The Trump administration had its first ambassador confirmed at Day 62 of the Trump presidency. The Obama administration had its first ambassador confirmed at Day 73. The George W. Bush administration had its first ambassador confirmed at Day 75. For the Clinton administration, it was Day 75. For the George H.W. Bush administration, it was Day 83. We are now more than 200 days into the Biden administration, and as of this moment, there is not a single confirmed State Department country ambassador. Not one.” Most of the individuals involved were career diplomats, not political appointees. Some ambassadorial and other State Department appointees have been confirmed since Chairman Menendez made his speech in 2021, but many, many nominees are waiting to begin their service.
Julie Turner is a well-qualified career government official, with an outstanding record on human rights and a demonstrated interest and experience in dealing with issues involving North Korea. Unfortunately, she has now been waiting for six months with little indication that she will soon be able to assume her responsibilities as the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights. It is tragic when our enemies take actions that harm United States interests, but it is foolish when we do it to ourselves for absolutely no good reason.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Amanda Walker’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.