[Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] is in no rush to fill the several hundred senior-level posts that require political appointments. [President] Trump has yet to nominate a single assistant secretary, leaving the department’s top posts for regions like Europe, Asia and the Middle East vacant. Instead, career civil servants — “acting” assistant secretaries — are filling the jobs until their replacements are nominated, a move that is eliciting criticism from department veterans.
“Under what theory of management is there not an assistant secretary for Europe or Asia?” said Dan Fried, a career foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Poland under President Bill Clinton and on the National Security Council under Bush, and was coordinator of sanctions policy until he retired in February. “How do you make an administration effective when your institutions are weak?”
No matter how hardworking his close-knit staff members may be, they cannot perform all the functions themselves, nor implement their policy ideas without loyalists in key roles.
The danger here is more than an ineffectual State Department. The real danger is when something goes terribly wrong in the world, as we know inevitably happens over the course of a presidency, especially at a time when foes emboldened and the Atlantic alliance is fraying. When a crisis erupts in an area of the world that Tillerson hasn’t bothered to staff, or another attack on an embassy occurs when Tillerson has not bothered to put up a nominee for assistant secretary for diplomatic security (the spot is filled by an acting assistant secretary for now), Tillerson and the president will be in deep trouble. Their business backgrounds were supposed to ensure that we got better management and only the “best people”; instead they cannot perform the most basic task of a new administration — picking personnel.
The problem extends beyond foreign policy. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Federal Trade Commission is down to just two commissioners, effectively making it inoperable. The report continues:
It is a predicament never before seen in the agency’s 102-year history, one making life more complicated for these companies and others with delicate business before the FTC.
Similar stories are unfolding across official Washington, as the unexpected election victory by President Donald Trump and a slow transition process added to the usual disruption triggered when power changes hands. While some of the positions were unfilled even before Mr. Trump took office, left open by tradition for the next president to fill, they could remain empty for more months, making 2017 a year of prolonged uncertainty for businesses eager for clarity from regulators.
Consider the disasters that the Trump team is courting. Another major Wall Street swindle comes to light, but the president has not bothered to fill the open spots on the Securities and Exchange Commission. Moreover, the Trump administration is not effectively in charge of substantial policy areas unless it fills open posts. (“On the National Labor Relations Board, Mr. Trump hasn’t nominated any candidates for two open seats, and Democrats still hold a 2-1 majority.”) From the standpoint of Republicans, “bad” precedent will continue, perhaps for the remainder of the Trump term, since it cannot get its act together to appoint its own people.
Likewise, “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has lacked a quorum since February, because its rules require at least three commissioners, and it has only two. The commission can’t hold its monthly meetings or vote on matters like approving new pipelines. Mr. Trump announced two FERC nominees last month, and they appeared before a Senate committee on May 25. The nominations must be reported out of the committee and confirmed by the Senate.” FERC, its website explains, “is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil.” A problem with the grid or a pipeline break will raise questions as to why there was literally no one around to foresee and head off problems.
Trump knows virtually nothing about policy or how government operates, even after more than four months in office. He has hired people who generally are not any more informed or experienced. When you don’t know what you don’t know and don’t know what is important or what can go wrong, you set yourself up for disasters, scandals and general incompetence. Even if, as the Trump team does, you care little about governance, from the standpoint of self-preservation you’d think it would staff up some fairly critical positions. It will be fascinating to watch the finger-pointing when the first “Why wasn’t someone minding the store?” disaster hits.