For Political Appointees, a Trickle-In Theory
In Awkward Phase, Newbies Are Getting Oriented Amid Still-Empty Cubicles

By Joel Achenbach and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sean Smith, 38, is an Obama newbie, freshly arrived at the Homeland Security Department on Nebraska Avenue. He has an interim ID badge, a computer, an e-mail account, a BlackBerry. He has gone through what is known in the bureaucracy as "in-processing." By Thursday, Day Two of the job, he was feeling less disoriented than on Day One.

"I've doubled my entire tenure in one day. There's a sense that the ground is becoming more solid under my feet," Smith said by phone from his fourth-floor office.

Or maybe it's a third-floor office.

"I think it's the fourth floor. I'm not even sure," he said. "There's a four on the door there. It's a big maze out here."

He soon determined that he was in building four, floor three.

So begins a new presidential administration. The big boss is at his desk at the White House, but the vast executive branch is in an awkward phase, lightly sprinkled with political appointees still trying to get permanent badges and locate the restrooms. Many of the big corner offices remain empty.

In short, the Obama administration is still partly hypothetical. There are more than 3,000 political jobs to fill, including 1,141 positions that require Senate confirmation. Soon after President Obama took office on Tuesday, the Senate approved seven of those nominations, then an eighth on Wednesday and six more Thursday evening. Only 1,127 to go.

As the weekend arrived, some Cabinet-level departments were still being run by civil servants rather than Obama picks. Even in agencies where the secretaries are in place, there are few -- or no -- confirmed deputies. The filling-in of offices along the corridors radiating from the secretary's sanctum typically takes months, as the Senate's sense of urgency fades. In recent years, individual senators have more frequently blocked nominations.

Slowing everything further is a new culture of intensive vetting. Ethics rules have been tightened, and background checks have become more thorough. A would-be Obama administration official must answer a 63-item questionnaire that asks, among other things, if he or she has ever written an e-mail or penned a diary entry that might embarrass the administration.

And so change, dramatic though it may be at the White House, comes more subtly to the bureaucracy.

At the Labor Department building on Constitution Avenue, the new administration means that the TVs in the main lobby are now tuned to CNN after years of Fox News. The portraits of former president George W. Bush and departed secretary Elaine L. Chao have vanished from the walls. But there aren't any Obama people to be found, much less pictures of them. Obama's choice for labor secretary, Rep. Hilda L. Solis, hasn't been confirmed.

The technological transition has been shaky across town, as well. At the Web site, an organization chart declared that the secretary's job remained vacant -- even though the Senate had a day earlier confirmed Obama's nominee, Shaun Donovan.

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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