By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 9, 2007
The Bush administration has failed to fill roughly a quarter of the top leadership posts at the Department of Homeland Security, creating a "gaping hole" in the nation's preparedness for a terrorist attack or other threat, according to a congressional report to be released today.
As of May 1, Homeland Security had 138 vacancies among its top 575 positions, with the greatest voids reported in its policy, legal and intelligence sections, as well as in immigration agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard. The vacant slots include presidential, senior executive and other high-level appointments, according to the report by the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee.
A DHS spokesman challenged the report's tally, saying that it is skewed by a sudden expansion this spring in the number of top management jobs. Before then, only 12 percent of positions were unfilled in a department that has always been thinly staffed at headquarters, spokesman Russ Knocke said.
The findings have stoked fresh concern among some in Congress about the four-year-old department's progress in overcoming management problems, dating to its troubled 2003 creation from 22 components.
The DHS was reorganized in 2005 by its current secretary, Michael Chertoff. But it suffered a breakdown at multiple levels in responding to Hurricane Katrina that August, which prompted a new congressional overhaul.
"One of the continuing problems appears to be the over politicization of the top rank of Department management," concludes the report by the committee, chaired by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.). "This could lead to heightened vulnerability to terrorist attack."
In an interview, Thompson said that vacancies have weakened morale and reflect an over-reliance on contractors. He also called the report a warning "that we can expect more vacancies to occur than what we have been accustomed to" at the close of the administration, when many top personnel will leave their posts.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, agreed that the inability to fill jobs is creating problems within DHS offices. While walking in his district yesterday, Davis said, he met constituents employed at an immigration agency who described lower morale because of the vacancies.
The DHS has one of the largest rosters of senior political appointees in the federal government, in part because of how it was created. The DHS says it has never had more than 220 senior political appointees, although the Office of Personnel Management told Congress of more than 360 in 2004, National Journal reported last month.
Of the 138 vacant positions, the DHS provided no explanation for 70, according to the House report. Seven others had tentative or pending appointees and 60 were under recruitment.
The department currently has 130 vacancies at senior levels, Knocke said, with 92 now in the process of recruitment.
A major focus of the current DHS leadership, Knocke said, is preparing a competent bench of managers by 2009, when a new presidential administration will come into power. Department officials said they have removed officials whose qualifications and political backgrounds were called into question in favor of more seasoned personnel.
For Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson, Knocke said, "planning for the transition is a huge part of how he spends his time each day -- to ensure that we have the right caliber of leaders in the number-two and -three positions at our component agencies and program offices, so that they are well trained, well experienced and ready."
Nevertheless, congressional auditors, management consultants and academic experts on government have warned that several trends are undercutting efforts to improve DHS management. The department faces high turnover because top officials are in demand in a private sector willing to pay lucrative salaries. It is heavily dependent on contractors, yet its staff to manage them is overstretched. Partisan political combat over homeland security issues has also made jobs less attractive.
Homeland Security employees reported the lowest job satisfaction among 36 federal agencies in a January survey by the OPM. The average tenure of the Secret Service director has dropped from 10 years during the past century to less than three years since 1992, and the agency has had three directors since it was moved into the DHS.
The head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie L. Myers, has served as a recess appointment unconfirmed by the Senate since 2005, when she came under fire by lawmakers who challenged her political connections and management qualifications.
Knocke said Congress has "sent the wrong message to employees" at times by attacking individual appointees and agencies, rather than "ensuring that they have confident leadership in place and the support of Congress behind that leadership and that agency."
Among those who have been questioned by congressional Democrats is W. Ross Ashley III, nominated by President Bush as head of a newly consolidated FEMA office overseeing billions in federal grants. Ashley was a senior executive for a DHS contractor, ChoicePoint, and has not worked in federal grant-making. FEMA remains a sensitive agency politically because of the prevalence of Bush political allies among its leadership at the time of Katrina, including ousted director Michael D. Brown.
David Heyman, homeland security director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that congressional battles over Iraq and immigration have created political distractions for the DHS. But he said that only senior leaders can make the new department succeed.
"The department has had great challenges forging a new entity out of 22 parts," Heyman said. "It's not the staff-level or civil servants who will be forging e pluribus unum -- out of many, one. It's the leadership that makes a difference."
Davis, the Virginia Republican, said that political appointees often leave administrations for new opportunities at this point in a president's term and that bureaucratic limits on government pay and hiring are legitimate problems.
But, Davis added: "This is an area where you can't afford to have these vacancies. The American people are counting on the administration to have these positions filled. This is our first line of defense in the fight against terrorism. You have to make it a priority."