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Despite Dramatic Change at White House, Pace of Filling in Departments Much More Slow

"I'm hoping to come in this weekend to make the office more my own," said Matthew Yale, who just became the deputy chief of staff to the new education secretary.
"I'm hoping to come in this weekend to make the office more my own," said Matthew Yale, who just became the deputy chief of staff to the new education secretary. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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There are Obama appointees in and out of the Treasury building, but they're a bleary-eyed bunch. They were forced to pull an all-nighter Wednesday and into Thursday to come up with the answers to 240 questions hurled at nominee Timothy F. Geithner late Wednesday by the Senate Finance Committee.

Pending Geithner's confirmation, the person running Treasury and overseeing the banking crisis is Stuart Levey -- to which the correct response would be "Who?" Before he became acting secretary, Levey served as the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

At the massive Education Department building Thursday morning, Matthew Yale, 31, paused to get his bearings as he navigated a maze of empty cubicles and offices, soon to be the stomping ground of some of the department's 100-plus political appointees.

"Now we're lost," said Yale, who was sworn in Wednesday as Education Secretary Arne Duncan's new deputy chief of staff.

Yale's new desk held an unopened stack of spiral notebooks, a tape dispenser and two brand new glue sticks. The former occupant left loose change, paperclips and scissors in the top drawer. The bookshelves are empty. The walls are barren. "I'm hoping to come in this weekend to make the office more my own," Yale said.

Even gold-plated members of the Obama Cabinet are figuring things out.

"I've got a map, and I've got staff who know how to get me around," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said near the end of his first day in a headquarters on Independence Avenue that houses a bewildering eight miles of corridors.

By day's end, he had announced two top deputies, received a confidential briefing, taken a trip to Capitol Hill, shaken hands around the building and fielded questions from hundreds of employees gathered in the department's atrium. He discussed his priorities: implementing the farm bill, renewing the nation's school nutrition law, emphasizing renewable energy and fuels. "I thought it was important to send a message: I appreciate their work, and I was the new guy," he said.

He learned that his new workplace contains a post office, fitness centers, cafeterias and 6,900 employees. But he remained uncertain about exactly how many employees he supervises nationwide.

"I asked how many employees work at USDA, and nobody really knows," he said, before taking home a six-inch stack of documents to read.

The United States is unusual in having an executive branch loaded with political appointees at the top. At the Energy Department, for example, the assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability is a political appointee, as is the assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The Agriculture Department alone has 227 political slots. A change in administrations is much more dramatic here than it is in, for example, Britain, where fewer than 200 officials are political appointees.

"Right now, the administration is not so much headless as neckless," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, who is an expert in presidential transitions and an occasional Washington Post contributor.

In that metaphor, the White House is the head, and it's fairly full, if hardly swollen. The neck would be the deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and so on at the various departments and agencies. The torso, arms and legs are all the civil servants and contractors who implement the policies.

Part of the new neck is Matt Lee-Ashley, whose first day in the communications office at the Interior Department went as smoothly as could be hoped. The 27-year-old from Colorado Springs put on a blue suit, packed a ham-and-cheese sandwich, and drove his 1992 Volkswagen Jetta (with 100,000 miles as of last month) to Interior, arriving at 8:40 a.m., early enough to allow him to engage in some pop music banter with the parking garage attendant.

The attendant showed him where to park and what elevator to take. Eventually, he wound up in his new office, around the corner and down the hall from Secretary Ken Salazar.

"It has windows, which is new to me," he said of his office.

What direction do the windows face?

"It looks . . ." He paused, pondering the view. "East," he decided.

He had only one hitch: "I had trouble finding a water fountain."

He did what any smart young man would do: He asked helpful civil service employees for directions.

Staff writers Maria Glod, Philip Rucker, Ann Scott Tyson and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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