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Posts Remain Empty As White House Vetting Slows

Stepped-up vetting of President Obama's nominees has slowed the process of filling hundreds of government jobs. The delay means several federal agencies have no administration appointees beneath the Cabinet level to help form and carry out the president's policies.

Among affected agencies is the Treasury Department — at a time when the U.S. faces the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner shuttles between appearances before congressional panels to testify about the budget, oversees the rollout of homeowner and bank bailout programs, and joins talks to rescue the auto industry, he is pretty much the only Obama appointee with a desk at the Treasury. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker calls the situation "shameful."


"The secretary of the Treasury is sitting there without a deputy, without any undersecretaries, with no — so far as I know — with no assistant secretary responsible in substantive areas, at a time of obviously very severe crisis," Volcker told a congressional hearing in late February. "He shouldn't be sitting there alone."

The White House disputes Volcker's characterization. Spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters earlier this week that it wasn't all that bad. "I don't think that the secretary is alone at the Treasury Department," Gibbs said. "I think there are many able people assisting him. We've asked a lot of Treasury, and they're doing a lot of great work."

But Volcker's remarks illustrate the slow progress that the Obama administration is making in naming some key government officials. Darrell West, director of the governmental studies project at the Brookings Institution, calls it "depressingly slow." These are some big jobs at the sub-Cabinet level, West says, that carry out the day-to-day work of government.

"Those are the people who do a lot of the work," West says. "You know, the Cabinet secretary is out dealing with the press and dealing with external outreach. But it's sub-Cabinet positions that actually help to write the legislation, make the policy and do the oversight needed for effective government."

There are some 1,200 government jobs that require Senate confirmation. About 360 of those are considered policy jobs, according to the White House Transition Project, which tracks presidential staff; the president has filled more than 70 of those jobs so far. The result, according to Terry Sullivan, director of the project, is that Bush administration policies remain in place at many agencies.


"It has to be trouble to come in as secretary of the Treasury and not have other policymakers around you of your ilk. And [to] have your interests and those of the president, to cover all of the bases that are necessary in this just gargantuan government that we have," Sullivan said.

The list of high-profile appointments the president has yet to make includes a broad array of agencies. The Federal Aviation Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the Census Bureau, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration all lack directors, and there are many, many more.

One problem the Obama administration faces is a result of the tax issues of some early nominees — including Geithner and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who withdrew his nomination as health and human services secretary after tax revelations. And this week, Ron Kirk, the president's nominee for trade representative, was found to owe an estimated $10,000 in back taxes from an earlier decade.

West of the Brookings Institution says the administration is now being doubly cautious about reviewing or vetting its nominees. "The vetting process seems to be slow," West says. It's been hard to find people who meet the very high ethical standards the administration has set for itself. When you run as an outside, reform-oriented individual, people have very high expectations for the types of people you will appoint."

Every new president has faced a similar climb to staff up the government, and Obama is doing better than his most recent predecessors by some measures. But this president is also facing an all but unprecedented set of foreign and domestic challenges, and could surely use all hands on deck.

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