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."
Among the most beleaguered agencies is Housing and Urban Development. The department has been reeling since the resignation of Secretary Alphonso Jackson in March after allegations of cronyism and inattention to the rising wave of mortgage failures.
The president's nominee for the job, Small Business Administration chief Steven C. Preston, appeared last week before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. But efforts to fast-track a confirmation vote fell through.
Other top vacancies at HUD include assistant secretary for community planning and development, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental relations, and president of the Government National Mortgage Association.
"What we need is really strong leadership in these positions," said Linda Couch, deputy director of the nonpartisan National Low Income Housing Coalition. "The problems don't go away just because there is not someone there to fix them."
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), a member of the housing committee, said the vacancies are "unacceptable."
"This committee must share blame," Allard said during the confirmation hearing for Preston. "These nominations have been languishing for months."
At the Justice Department, five of seven senior positions have been filled by acting officials since the departure of former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, who resigned amid controversy over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, who argues cases before the Supreme Court, just announced his resignation, as well.
At the Treasury Department, vacancies exist for the deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis and the senior adviser to the assistant secretary for economic policy. The department has an acting inspector general who is awaiting Senate confirmation. Several top positions for career officials also are open.
Eileen Gilligan, a Treasury spokeswoman, said that the total number of vacancies is "low for us," and that "they are not affecting the department's work, because we have plenty of good people covering the work for those vacant positions."
Leonard E. Burman, a public finance expert at the Urban Institute who served as deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis in the Clinton administration, said unfilled positions do not go unnoticed.
"It's probably important for the morale of the staff, because if there are no replacements for senior-level positions and none in the wings, then it suggests that they are kind of irrelevant," Burman said. "It does kind of signal that the work of that office is kind of shutting down."
At the Department of Health and Human Services, the country has been without a permanent surgeon general since Richard H. Carmona's term expired in July 2006. Two men have held the post on an acting basis since then. The current occupant, Steven K. Galson, is a respected career public health official who has served in senior-level positions at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Food and Drug Administration.
Bush nominated former Kentucky state health director James W. Holsinger Jr. for the job in May 2007, but his nomination stalled in the Senate.
The lack of a permanent leader matters, said Jerry Farrell, executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association, a nonprofit group that represents more than 7,000 current and retired officers of the U.S. Public Health Service. "As the acting guy, he doesn't have the heft, the authority, that a permanent appointee would have," Farrell said.
HHS also lacks a permanent head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which serves more than 94 million Americans and oversees $653 billion in entitlement spending annually. Kerry Weems, the acting administrator of the agency, was nominated by Bush in May 2007 but has never come up for a confirmation vote.
Even at the White House, the president's three-member Council of Economic Advisers has only one confirmed member, Chairman Edward P. Lazear. The nomination for acting member Donald Marron has stalled for nearly a year. The third seat remains empty after a nominee withdrew his name.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling and staff writers Spencer S. Hsu, Carrie Johnson, Carol D. Leonnig and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.