OPM's Elaine Kaplan, left, and GSA's Dan Tangherlini are in 'acting' positions while their agencies await permanent leaders. They joined new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at a recent announcement of GSA's hybrid vehicle initiative. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Barely three months into its second term, the Obama administration is confronting an epidemic of empty desks.
At the Office of Personnel Management, General Counsel Elaine Kaplan is filling in after Director John Berry left last month, with no permanent replacement on deck.
The General Services Administration also is in caretaker status; acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini has been running the show since April 2012.
At the Commerce Department, President Obama only last week nominated Penny Pritzker to become the secretary, more than 10 months after John Bryson resigned following a car accident. But the top jobs at three of the department’s largest branches — the Census Bureau, Patent and Trademark Office and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — remain vacant.
“It’s unexplainable,” Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said in an interview. Wolf, who chairs the subcommittee that drafts Commerce’s yearly budget, pressed the administration in a letter last month to fill the posts, possibly with career employees “to ensure continuity of leadership as administrations change.”
The White House is responsible for hiring about 3,000 people involved in running the executive branch, including more than 800 who require Senate confirmation. Exactly how many of those slots are empty is unclear, but vacancies are a growing problem, said Anne O’Connell, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley who has studied the subject.
“Since the Clinton administration, there’s been increasing reliance on acting officials,” O’Connell said. For one thing, many appointees face family or professional obligations that limit their tenure to just a year or two. For another, positions below the Cabinet secretary level may involve high stress and long hours, she said,
Just in the last month, at least three deputy secretaries — at the Interior, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments — have announced their resignations. All have been on the job for about four years.
But Bob Nash, who ran the White House Office of Presidential Personnel for most of President Clinton’s eight years in office, called the turnover rate at this point predictable.
“Unless people are independently wealthy,” Nash said, “they’ve got to figure out, ‘What am I going to do after this is over?’ ” While still substantial, he added, the applicant pool is much smaller than at the start of a president’s first term, making it harder to find suitable candidates.
Apart from agencies like the Defense and State departments, however, Nash didn’t see a reliance on temporary leaders as a serious concern. Between lower-tier political appointees and senior career staff, he said, “all of these departments have tremendous depth.”
Under Obama, the presidential personnel office is led by Nancy Hogan, who referred questions to the White House press office. In an email, spokesman Eric Schultz cited the “high bar” set by the administration’s vetting requirements and ethical standards. He also blamed Senate Republicans for going to “extraordinary lengths” to gum up the confirmation process. Once Cabinet secretaries are on the job, Schultz said, “we work with them to build their teams as quickly as possible.”
The administration can point to some recent progress. Last month’s confirmation of Sylvia Mathews Burwell means the Office of Management and Budget has a permanent head for the first time since early 2012. Soon after, Obama nominated law professor Howard Shelanski to head OMB’s powerful Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a post that has been vacant since August. Besides Pritzker, he last week named Mike Froman to become the next U.S. trade representative.
Confirmation holdups have regularly bedeviled administrations.
Mainly because of friction over gun policy, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has lacked a Senate-confirmed head for almost seven years. In January, Obama nominated federal prosecutor Todd Jones for the post; lawmakers have so far taken no action.
Even appointees for lower-profile positions can run into delays.
Since the beginning of the year, the Federal Labor Relations Authority has been unable to do its basic job of settling disputes between agencies and labor unions because two of its three seats are empty. As of last week, the case backlog had swelled to more than 100, or double the October number, according to official statistics.
Although Obama named the authority’s chairwoman, Carol Waller Pope, to another term in December, her nomination is on hold in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
And as capable as career staff and other political appointees may be, there is sometimes no substitute for an agency chief who has the explicit backing of both the White House and Congress, experts say. As lawmakers embark on a pivotal debate over immigration policy, they’re giving fresh scrutiny to the performance of Customs and Border Protection, a wing of DHS that has the lead for border security.
Since its acting commissioner, David Aguilar, left in March, CBP has been led by another interim chief, Deputy Commissioner Thomas Winkowski.
At a time when Congress is making “big decisions” about future mandates and expectations for the agency, “it is being represented by a placeholder with little ability to push back when it might be needed or fully ensure the agency’s interests,” said Doris Meissner, who oversaw immigration enforcement in the Clinton administration and now works at the Migration Policy Institute. ■