The U.S. Biden administration’s nomination of Eric Garcetti as its Ambassador to India appears to have run into a dead end with the current American Congress going into recess last week, and a new Congress beginning its 118th session on Tuesday. Barring the use of a rare Presidential privilege of a “recess appointment” on Monday, President Joseph Biden will have to now re-nominate Mr. Garcetti and restart the process for his confirmation, or abandon the effort and nominate another more acceptable candidate for the position, who will have to be confirmed by the Senate.
The logjam between Democrats and Republicans over a number of ambassadorial appointments, and in particular the case of Mr. Garcetti, who ran into trouble over allegations of sexual harassment by his deputy in his Los Angeles Mayoral Office, has meant that India has not had a full U.S. Ambassador in place for two years, the longest such period in history. Mr. Garcetti’s nomination was cleared in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but was stalled in the Senate after a number of Republican Senators raised objections to his posting.
Experts say the problem is not about ties with India but about the deepening polarisation between Republicans and Democrats that surfaces especially over political appointees.
“It’s a broken system that invites the kind of gridlock that we’re seeing now on our senior appointments,” said Ravi Agarwal, Editor of ‘Foreign Policy.Com’, speaking at the India-America Friendship Association on Friday. “And so, on the one hand, Democrats want to blame Republicans for not letting them confirm [Mr. Garcetti’s] nomination. But on the other hand this is a system that was broken by both sides for decades,” he added, suggesting that the Biden Administration may now have to reconsider and forward the name of a “career foreign service officer” for the post in India.
Officials said the renomination of Mr. Garcetti will become more complex since the new House of Representatives is now controlled by the Republicans who won a slim majority in elections in November, and the next few months are expected to see a tussle between Democrats and Republicans on a number of issues.
“Recess appointments are extremely rare, since it would mean the President taking away the U.S. Senate’s ability to weigh in and would fray relations between the executive and legislative branches [further],” an official explained.
The problems over Mr. Garcetti’s nomination, who is seen as a close personal friend of President Biden must have seemed more insurmountable than others, as in December the administration forwarded the names of more than 15 other Presidential nominees for Ambassadorial posts. Between December 13 and December 23, when Congress went into recess, the Senate cleared the names for Ambassador to Russia, Brazil, Estonia, Latvia, Czech Republic, Tunisia, Botswana, Congo, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and a number of other countries. India is now one of the remainder, approximately 30 countries including Saudi Arabia and UAE where the Ambassador has not been confirmed past the midpoint of this Administration’s tenure. Some have suggested that not all Democrat representatives, particularly elected women’s rights advocates are in favour of the Garcetti nomination due to the scandal as well, further adding to the delay.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has consistently held that the choice of Ambassador is the prerogative of the sending country, and that it “hopes” the position would be filled soon. India had accepted the “agreement” for Mr. Garcetti shortly after it was sent by the U.S. government last year, and considers him the Ambassador-Designate to India. However, if the Biden administration chooses to change the nomination, informed sources say that would be acceptable too.
In the meanwhile, the sources say the fact that the U.S. sent as its “Acting Ambassador” a senior former Ambassador-level, foreign service officer Elizabeth Jones, indicates that the U.S. is serious about maintaining ties. Ms. Jones, who arrived in Delhi in November, is moving into a newly renovated temporary home in Lutyen’s Delhi, as the Ambassador official residence “Roosevelt House” will be under a full renovation for some years.
The delay in sending an Ambassador to India has been criticised in the past few weeks in leading U.S. newspapers. “Ambassadorial vacancies send a message that the United States and its dysfunctional politics are not up to meeting the seriousness of these perilous times,” said a recent editorial in TheWashington Post. “A U.S. ambassador is the symbolic projection of American power. During the decades when India was strategically unimportant to the United States, Washington still sent important ambassadors to India. Today there is a glaring absence at the Roosevelt House in New Delhi,” wrote analyst Meenakshi Ahmad in TheNew York Times this month.