Federal Agencies With Growing Problems Await New Leaders, Direction

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

Since President Obama took office, the Food and Drug Administration has been criticized for lax food safety inspections, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been berated for missing Bernard L. Madoff's alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme, and just this week the Drug Enforcement Administration raided Southern California medical marijuana facilities, despite Obama's stated opposition to such practices.

These problems are far from isolated: A major federal labor union is pushing to oust Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue over budget cuts and personnel shortages; several Justice Department enforcement programs have been slashed in recent years; and the Environmental Protection Agency has struggled under a tight budget, just as the new administration has called for renewed focus on global warming.

Although much of Obama's time has been devoted to the financial crisis and efforts to pass a major stimulus package, experts point to a long list of festering concerns that they say demand immediate attention. Many of these problems -- including inadequate staffing, huge caseloads and a lack of clarity about the mission -- affect public safety and the efficiency of basic operations.

"While the economy and national security are obviously priority number one, the president is eager to take on the challenges we face across our government -- and his staff is coordinating with the federal agencies to do so," said Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman.

Darrell M. West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said, "Part of it is reorienting the bureaucracy towards the goals of his administration, and then another area is you have capacity questions of whether or not the agency is up to the job."

The SEC, under fire for failing to uncover the Madoff scam despite warnings, has blamed inadequate staffing.

"The amount of resources available to the SEC has not kept pace with the rapid expansion in the securities market over the past few years," Linda Thomsen of the SEC recently told the Senate banking committee.

Sens. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have introduced a bill that would add 100 SEC enforcement division employees to help with the investigatory backlog.

Meanwhile, the FDA has drawn criticism over the outbreak of salmonella illness that has killed at least eight people and sickened more than 500. The latest outbreak has amplified calls for an agency overhaul, mostly recently from Obama himself during an NBC interview.

White House aides told The Washington Post earlier this week that Obama would name a new FDA chief within days to address such concerns. But former senator Thomas A. Daschle's withdrawal from consideration for health and human services secretary will probably delay any announcement.

Similar delays in putting new administrators in place resulted in the continuation of Bush administration policies at the DEA that Obama has openly opposed.

Read Ed O'Keefe's Federal Eye blog at washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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