Nearly 14 months have passed since President Joe Biden nominated Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the U.S. ambassador to India.
But the position remains vacant — as it has been since Kenneth Juster stepped down when then-President Donald Trump left office on Jan. 20 of last year. Experts on the Indo-Pacific region say the lack of an ambassador in such an important country is a cause for concern.
“I cannot exaggerate when I say that we are living through probably the most consequential times since World War II,” Professor Deepa Ollapally, associate director of the Sigur Center for Asian studies at the George Washington University, told Spectrum News, pointing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming threat of China.
“In all of these cases, India's actually very crucial, even in the Ukraine war, because of its longstanding relations with Russia,” Ollapally said.
Garcetti’s parents, Gil and Sukey Garcetti, even hired a lobbying firm, McGuireWoods Consulting, to get the Senate to vote on confirming their son’s nomination. The firm McGuireWoods reported receiving approximately $30,000 from April 1 to June 30 to lobby on the mayor’s behalf, according to a lobbying disclosure report filed with the Senate.
Biden announced his intention to nominate Garcetti on July 9, 2021. The mayor tweeted his acceptance, adding “should I be confirmed, I’ll bring this same energy, commitment, and love for this city to my new role and will forge partnerships and connections that will help strengthen Los Angeles’ place on the world stage.”
Garcetti was an early backer of Biden, co-chairing both his campaign and his inaugural committee. He also helped to vet potential running mates before Biden selected fellow Californian Kamala Harris. This nomination was largely seen as a reward for the mayor’s loyalty.
“Garcetti was an early supporter of Biden, certainly when many Angelenos and Californians were not early in the campaign,” said Sara Sadhwani, a political scientist and professor of politics at Pomona College.
“Garcetti is termed out of his position as mayor, and certainly, I would imagine looking for opportunities as a stepping stone to perhaps national politics or a future cabinet position,” Sadhwani added. “We can't say for certain what his hopes and ambitions would be, but certainly an ambassadorship to a large nation like India would set himself up for future posts.”
But after a Senate confirmation hearing last December, Garcetti’s nomination came to a grinding halt.
While he had resounding support in the Foreign Relations Committee — only Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., voted no — Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa placed a “hold” on the nomination in March, delaying a vote by the full Senate.
Grassley cited allegations made in a lawsuit that a longtime aide to Garcetti, Rick Jacobs, sexually harassed one of Garcetti’s police bodyguards. Garcetti’s administration was named in the lawsuit, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing after an independent investigation conducted at the request of the city was completed.
During his confirmation hearing, Garcetti denied witnessing any inappropriate behavior by Jacobs. Grassley, unsatisfied with his comments, began an investigation into the matter. His office interviewed 15 people — but not Garcetti and Jacobs, who declined to participate.
The result was a 23 page report released in May that concluded Garcetti “likely knew or should have known” that one of his former top advisers was allegedly sexually harassing employees. The White House struck back at the report, calling it “a partisan hit job,” but when asked by Spectrum News, Grassley said he stood by the report.
“I’m not drawing any more conclusions except for this one senator,” Grassley said. “There are 99 other senators that [can] read the report and draw whatever they want from it. And I’m not dictating to it, I’m not holding it up anymore, it can go ahead on its own merits.”
“I don’t have that reputation for doing partisan hit jobs,” he added.
Just a few days later, Politico reported that Garcetti’s parents had hired McGuireWoods Consulting in April to lobby for their son’s nomination.
Since the release of Grassley’s report, little has changed, and the mayor’s nomination remains in limbo.
“I kind of see this almost as a test, between Biden's loyalty to Garcetti, who he's known for a very long time,” said Ollapally. “He's holding on, but then, on the other hand, it's also a test of the importance that Biden gives to India and that relationship, which every president since George W. Bush has been saying, is one of the most consequential relationships. And in fact, Biden himself has said it's indispensable. But you know, then you have to walk the talk.”
According to the American Foreign Service Association, there are 44 ambassador openings 19 months into Biden’s administration (although the U.S. currently does not exchange ambassadors with two of those countries). Twenty of those vacancies don’t even have a nominee. But Ollapally says the clock is ticking to get a nominee to be ambassador to India passed through the Senate.
“The United States has ambassadors, you know, now, in fact, all the other major countries, I mean, all the quad countries, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, they've all got an ambassador. And so this is sort of a big, gaping omission here. And I think, you know, I think the Biden administration is gonna have to act really fast,” added Ollapally.
Juster, Trump’s ambassador to India from Nov. 2017 until Trump left office, says leaving the post vacant for so long since then is problematic.
“I do think it is a problem that presents challenges and the relationship,” he said. “U.S.-India relationship is at a sufficiently good level. The folks in Washington maintain direct contact with folks in Delhi and business gets done, but not having the ambassador there handicaps matters. And you just don't have the daily interaction, the ability to read nuance to have side conversations. I think it does hinder the successfulness of policy.”
Juster told Spectrum News he spoke to Garcetti last year as the mayor prepared for his confirmation hearing.
“It’s traditional for any nominee to get in touch before he or she goes through the entire process, to learn whatever insights he or she can, and to better prepare for the position,” explained Juster. “I've been very pleased and impressed with my conversations in terms of his [Garcetti’s] intellect, his energy, his interest in the position and his capacity to do it.”
One concern is that there may not be enough Democratic support to confirm Garcetti. A spokesperson for Senator Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., told the Los Angeles Times that the senator “has concerns about this nomination based on the serious allegations raised by whistleblowers and is continuing to evaluate it.” That was before Grassley even released his report.
Spectrum News reached out to Kelly’s office multiple times, but no one returned our requests for comment. The office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also did not respond to multiple attempts to contact them for this story.
“There's a reason why Chuck Schumer has not brought this nomination as well as others. There are some other nominees that are pending,” said Sadhwani. “Schumer is counting every vote before it comes to the floor. So if there's any inclination that a member is going to withhold a vote in favor of one of these nominees, I don't see that moving forward before the November elections.”
“And of course, should the Democrats not maintain their hold over the Senate, that would not bode well for Garcetti moving forward,” she added.
Garcetti, according to the firm hired to lobby his nomination, remains positive.
“Mayor Garcetti is laser-focused on the job he has here in Los Angeles running America's second-biggest city,” said Breelyn Pete, one of the two lobbyists named on the form filed with the Senate Office of Public Records, in a statement to Spectrum News. “We know the Senate has a lot of critical priorities to juggle, and that shouldn’t be news to anyone right now.”
“We’re having great conversations on both sides of the aisle, and the Mayor is optimistic his nomination will be considered by the U.S. Senate soon,” Pete added.
The White House is standing by Garcetti, at least for now.
“Mayor Garcetti is well qualified to serve in this vital role,” a White House official told Spectrum News when asked whether the administration was still backing Garcetti’s nomination or if other potential candidates were being considered. “The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Mayor Garcetti out of committee unanimously, and we’re hopeful that the full Senate will confirm him promptly.”