Al Kamen
Al Kamen
In the Loop

At Customs and Border Protection, a demotion that wasn’t

There’s no chief at Customs and Border Protection — but even many of its employees may not know that.

Only someone carefully checking the agency’s Web site would have noticed that David Aguilar, who had been CBP’s acting commissioner, is now being identified as the deputy commissioner. There was no news release to that effect or any of the typical agency-wide e-mails announcing the title switch.

Al Kamen

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. He began his reporting career at the Rocky Mountain News and joined The Post in 1980. He has covered local and federal courts, the Supreme Court and the State Department. Follow him on Twitter.

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It was a surprise, we hear, to employees. Turns out, the fact that there’s no commissioner, acting or otherwise, is the product of an administrative quirk.

Aguilar has been the deputy commissioner since 2010 and took on the role of acting commissioner when former chief Alan Bersin resigned at the end of last year. Bersin was a recess appointee of President Obama’s — the White House named him to the position in March 2010 after the Senate did not act on his nomination — which meant his term expired at the end of 2011.

But Aguilar’s seat-warming had a shelf life, too. By law, one can serve in an “acting” capacity only so long, and Aguilar’s time was up.

Even though Aguilar no longer bears the title of acting commissioner, we hear that his job hasn’t changed. “He remains the agency’s most senior official and exercises the same authorities and responsibilities as he did while serving as acting commissioner,” a spokesman confirms.

And his wasn’t the only title shuffle: Thomas Winkowski, who had been acting deputy commissioner, has been named acting chief operating officer.

It looks as though the customs agency will have to go without a permanent chief for a while longer. The White House never nominated a replacement for Bersin.

The people’s business

If you believe all the rhetoric oozing from the campaign trail (and you do, don’t you?), Washington is dysfunctional and Congress is paralyzed.

Congress, though, is proving all its critics wrong. Both chambers reconvened from their August recesses this week and immediately got down to the people’s business. They even passed multiple bills. Bipartisanship lives! Gridlock? Not here.

Americans can rest easier knowing that so far this week, the Senate has adopted three bills, one naming this week “National Direct Support Professionals Recognition Week” (honoring the good folks who work with disabled people), another designating September as “Campus Fire Safety Month” and a third designating Sept. 13 as “National Celiac Disease Awareness Day.”

And the House, where there’s a far wider majority, moved on a whole passel of legislation. Some of it was incidental, like a bill to correct an error in the Trademark Act of 1946, but some of it was somewhat substantive, like the Vietnam Human Rights Act (lawmakers are for them), the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act (similarly, they’re pro-adoption) and the Local Courthouse Safety Act (they want more safety, not less).

Just more evidence that one should take what candidates say with a grain of salt.

The debris of democracy

A Loop item Tuesday mentioned chads, those little pieces of punch-hole cardboard that came to fame in the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

Loop Fan David Hart of Miami wrote to correct: “I hope that I am not terribly anal to tell you that the plural of chad is chad. CHAD stands for ‘card hole accumulated debris.’ ”

If that’s correct, would that make it one of those terms like “RBI,” where, in talking about the Nats’ Bryce Harper , you might think you have to say, “Harper has 49 ars-bee-eye?” (But then people might think you’re pretending to be a pirate.)

Not quite, as Washington Post copy editor par excellence Bill Walsh notes, adding: “If it’s two RBI, then it’s two POW, right?” (Walsh has written three books on English usage, including “Lapsing Into a Comma” and one out next year tentatively titled “Yes, I Could Care Less.”)

And, as it turns out, the origin of “chad” is unknown. Wikipedia cites an acronym explanation similar to Hart’s — “card hole aggregate debris” — but says that and another derivation from “The New Hacker’s Dictionary” are “clearly intended as jokes.”

Dictionary searches were inconclusive. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary posits that chad means “small pieces of paper,” which would make the word a mass noun, requiring no pluralization, as Hart suggests.

But the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Webster’s Unabridged say the term is a simple singular, with the latter defining it as “a small paper disk or square formed when a hole is punched in a punch card or paper tape.”

Let the chads hang where they may.

Learning by doing

In an example of just how hard it can be for administration types to thread the needle in balancing campaign and official remarks, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently ran afoul of the Hatch Act, the law separating the two.

Sebelius spoke at a February gala thrown by the Human Rights Campaign in Charlotte. As ABC News reported, she classified the trip as part of her “official duties,” but she got in trouble when she meandered away from prepared remarks and put in a plug for President Obama and North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who is running for governor.

Should have stuck to the prompter.

HHS “retroactively reclassified the event as political,” a report from the Office of Special Counsel states — though only after media inquiries — and Sebelius paid the government back for the cost of the trip. The OSC told Obama that the incident “offers an opportunity to remind federal employees of the complex Hatch Act restrictions.”

So it’s a teachable moment.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

 
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