THE FEDERAL government, so often vilified as bureaucratic or intrusive, shields the American people. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security protect against security threats, the Food and Drug Administration guards food-supply and drug safety. The Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction over the largest aerospace system in the world. Yet, every one of these agencies today is led by an “acting” chief, a temporary status that is sometimes necessary but been abused by President Trump in his ongoing contempt for public service.
The latest example is the abrupt departure of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who will be replaced on an acting basis by Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Patrick Shanahan became acting defense secretary in January after the resignation of Jim Mattis. Daniel Elwell is acting administrator of the FAA; the president sent the nomination of Stephen M. Dickson to the Senate on March 19. At the FDA, the post of recently departed administrator Scott Gottlieb will be held on an acting basis by Norman “Ned” Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute. Mr. Trump’s chief of staff at the White House, Mick Mulvaney, is “acting,” too. There are no nominees for Defense, Homeland Security or the FDA.
Undoubtedly, “acting” agency chiefs take their duties seriously. But their status stymies decision-making and paralyzes leadership. An acting secretary lacks the full authority to deal with outside stakeholders or the inside workforce. The “acting” boss has no idea how long the appointment will last, so the incentive at best is to tackle short-term problems. Under Mr. Trump, who values personal loyalty over capability or principle, acting appointees have every reason to cater to his whims and forsake the knottier problems that won’t earn brownie points in the White House. “Acting” chiefs often don’t have the chance to install a team, though no leader of a major department can succeed without one. It makes recruitment harder, too — who wants to work for a boss who may be gone soon? By appointing so many “acting” chiefs, Mr. Trump undercuts the Senate’s job of giving advice and consent on major appointments, postponing the confirmation process that can set the direction of long-term policy and an appointee’s priorities. Overall, the practice injects uncertainty and disruptiveness. Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, says it is rather like substitute teachers in school; they are committed educators, but classes tend to be unruly.
“Help wanted” has become a sorry moniker for this administration. According to The Post’s tracker with the Partnership for Public Service, of 717 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, only 436 have been confirmed, 140 have no nominee, 134 have been formally nominated, and 10 are awaiting nomination. Mr. Trump, who has never seemed in a hurry to fill the vacancies in his administration, boasted to reporters in January that “I sort of like ‘acting,’ ” adding, “It gives me more flexibility; do you understand that? I like ‘acting.’ ” To the contrary, the practice erodes public service. It is nothing to brag about.