Vacancies in top posts slow policy decisions

  • Article by: MICHAEL D. SHEAR
  • New York Times
  • May 2, 2013 - 9:34 PM


– Secretary of State John Kerry is practically home alone, toiling without permanent assistant secretaries of state for the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa. At the Pentagon, a temporary personnel chief is managing furloughs for 800,000 civilian employees.

There has not been a director of the Internal Revenue Service since November, and it was only on Thursday that President Obama nominated a new commerce secretary after the job was open for nearly a year.

As the White House races this week to plug keyholes in the Cabinet, the lights remain off in essential offices across the administration. The vacancies are slowing down policymaking in a capital already known for inaction, and embarrassing a president who has had more than five months since his re-election to fill many of the jobs.

“I don’t think it’s ever been this bad,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who wrote a letter urging Obama to act swiftly to fill top vacancies.

One of the worst backlogs is at the State Department, where nearly a quarter of the most senior posts are not filled, including positions in charge of embassy security and counterterrorism. The Treasury Department is searching for a new No. 2, the Department of Homeland Security is missing its top two cybersecurity officials and about 30 percent of the top jobs at the Commerce Department are still vacant, including that of chief economist.

‘Extraordinary lengths’

At the Pentagon, which is helping to lead the administration’s “pivot” to a greater focus on Asia, the assistant secretary of defense for Asia is about to leave his job. Kerry expressed frustration about the State Department vacancies in recent testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, saying he was “still waiting for the vetting to move” at the White House for people he recommended for jobs “way back in February.”

Although Kerry said that “the White House and the administration make the very best out of a tough situation,” who is to blame is a matter of debate. The White House faults an increasingly partisan confirmation process in the Senate and what officials say are over-the-top demands for information about every corner of a nominee’s life. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew received 444 questions from senators before his confirmation, more than the seven previous Treasury nominees combined, said data compiled by the White House. Gina McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, got 1,000 questions from the Senate, White House officials said.

“Current congressional Republicans have made no secret of the extraordinary lengths they will go to to obstruct the confirmation process,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.

Bottleneck at White House?

But members of Congress and a number of agency officials say the bottleneck is at the White House, where nominees remain unannounced as the legal and personnel offices conduct background checks aimed at discovering the slightest potential problem that could hold up a confirmation.

Administration officials, members of Congress and scholars of the federal appointment process say it is difficult to determine — short of a six-month study — if Obama has filled fewer of the roughly 1,200 federal jobs that require Senate confirmation than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton had at this point in their second terms. But there is widespread agreement that an alarming number of posts in the government’s most senior ranks are vacant or filled with acting deputies with little authority.

“It’s a weakening of accountability down the chain of command,” said Paul Light, a professor at New York University. “You don’t have someone there who has full authority to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The whole system tends to grind down to a very slow crawl.”

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