Late in the Term, an Exodus of Senior Officials

By Dan Eggen and Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

With eight months left in President Bush's term, scores of senior officials already are heading for the exits, leaving nearly half the administration's top political positions vacant or filled by temporary appointees, federal statistics show.

More than 200 pending nominations are languishing on Capitol Hill, bogged down in political fights between Democrats and the White House.

At the same time, agencies have begun preparing for a new administration, including plans to temporarily install career employees in senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security during the transition. The White House also has taken the unusual step of ordering federal agencies to stop proposing regulations after Sunday -- meaning that new rules on issues including greenhouse gases and air-traveler protection are unlikely to be finalized before Bush leaves office.

In many ways, the work slowdown and higher appointee turnover is typical of any changing of the political guard in Washington. But the process now occurs over years rather than months, and experts say it threatens to hamper the important work of agencies, whether it be improving public health, promoting affordable housing, fighting crime or providing for the nation's security.

"You've got almost two years of pure chaos," said Paul C. Light, an expert on the federal bureaucracy at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. "The civil servants don't know who they're supposed to be talking to. They're receiving no direction. Congress isn't being talked to. The president isn't really doing anything. It's really a highly vulnerable time for running a government."

Many experts say it is an especially bad time for vacancies, with two wars being waged abroad and a housing crisis and slumping economy at home. David E. Lewis, an assistant professor at Princeton University who has just written a book on presidential appointments, noted that the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was exacerbated by high turnover and vacancies at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"If you told people on Wall Street that every four years or eight years, you were going to lop off the top of a Fortune 500 company and say the company would operate normally, you'd be called crazy," Lewis said. "There is no question that it matters. Turnover and vacancies in politically appointed positions hurts performance."

Scandal has thinned the administration's ranks, as well. Dozens of appointee jobs have become vacant since ethical crises at the General Services Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department, to name a few.

White House officials say some departures are expected during any president's final year. But they accuse Democrats of making the problem worse by failing to approve nominations. The conflict came to a head last week when Senate leaders and the White House blamed each other for the collapse of a deal Thursday to approve 80 political and career appointees, including the new housing secretary.

"In the last year of an administration, it's reasonable that people would seek jobs outside the federal government," said White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. "We work to fill these vacancies, but Congress has not moved on them in a timely manner."

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said the White House has been slow to nominate replacements and has proved incapable of locking up the support of Senate Republicans for deals to bring packages of nominees up for a vote. He said last week's deal collapsed when a Republican senator balked.

"I have always thought, in my dealings around here, when we work something out, that is the agreement," Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday night. "But at the last minute, somebody steps in and says, 'That isn't quite good enough.' . . . That is not the way we should be doing business."

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