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Obama Team Slow to Fill Vacancies in Treasury, Other Agencies

March 9, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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A large number of sub-Cabinet positions across the federal government have yet to be filled, as the Obama administration carefully vets candidates for the Treasury Department and other agencies. A public service professor and New York Times reporter give an update.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As if the weakening economy, other domestic problems, and two wars overseas were not enough for President Obama to deal with, the large number of still-vacant positions across the federal government is complicating matters further.

Asked about the unfilled slots today, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration’s staffing process is moving forward.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: There’s a rigorous process involved. We hope that we’re working with Capitol Hill to ensure that, at the same time there’s appropriate rigor and vetting, that there’s not in any way any undue delay in ensuring that good people who want to serve their country can get into the jobs that they’ve been nominated for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the causes and the impact of the delays in filling top jobs in the new administration, we’re joined by New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny and Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University and author of the book “A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It.”

Thank you both for being with us.

And, Jeff Zeleny, to you first. You’re the one who asked Robert Gibbs that question. Where does the administration stand in terms of filling jobs?

JEFF ZELENY, New York Times: Well, the administration is a little frustrated by this. Right now, the numbers, they always say that they’re doing better than previous presidents have, but what they don’t say is their problems are and their challenges are far greater than previous presidents.

So some 71 people have been nominated or named for positions. Only 41 of them have been nominated; only 28 of them have been confirmed. And these are for senior, senior positions.

So, really, what’s happening here — I think one administration official I talked to today explained it the best. It’s like when you show up to an airport, a security line, all these applicants are standing in line. And if one person doesn’t take off their shoes, the line grows and grows and grows.

And that’s exactly what happened with the tax problems of someone like Tom Daschle, someone like a Timothy Geithner, the treasury secretary, so that’s what has happened here. So now they’re trying to take steps to sort of speed this process along, which is a challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Light, how does this compare with previous administrations we’ve watched?

PAUL LIGHT, New York University: Well, Obama is running a little bit ahead of George W. Bush. He’s running a little bit behind Bill Clinton. But, you know, all three were remarkably slow.

So to say you’re ahead of recent presidents is not saying much at all. You’ve got a very sluggish process that has become much more burdensome over the last 50 years.

John F. Kennedy was in office with a full sub-cabinet and cabinet within about two-and-a-half months of election. Barack Obama will be lucky to have his last appointee in by the first of the year. It’s just a terrible process.

The vetting process

Jeff Zeleny
New York Times
Everyone is essentially being audited. Because of the tax problems of a few secretaries or potential secretaries, everyone is now being very thoroughly audited.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff Zeleny, tell us how the process works. Who's doing the vetting? Where is it being done?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, the vetting now is being done all in the White House counsel's office. It was being done by the personnel department before, basically, but now it's being done essentially entirely by lawyers, not political people, but lawyers in the White House.

And it takes some 65 days from the time that you're named for the position -- at least that's the average -- to the time that you can officially report to work.

So the frustrating thing here is -- or the problem here is that some people are not waiting the full 65 days. Some of the qualified people, they believe, who they wanted to work in the administration who were big supporters are not sticking around. And you're seeing that at the FDA, the FAA. So the reason...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why aren't they sticking around?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, because the process is so laborious. So we've heard reports that people who have to find travel receipts from three years ago for a $20 receipt for something.

Everyone is essentially being audited. Because of the tax problems of a few secretaries or potential secretaries, everyone is now being very thoroughly audited.

And after the Tom Daschle situation, President Obama ordered his lawyers and his team to scrub the taxes of everyone. So that slowed down the process even further. So it's being very strict. And, you know, it's slowing things down. It has real effects.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Light, is the scrubbing process now considerably different from what it was under previous presidents?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, there are two things that are affecting it. Number one, there are many more people going through the process today than there were even eight years ago. We keep adding more and more Senate-confirmed appointees to the ranks of government.

The second thing is that the disclosure forms have become more complicated. The Obama administration has a 63-item questionnaire which asks whether or not you've ever sent a controversial e-mail, asks you whether or not you have a Facebook page, and so forth and so on.

There are roughly 300 questions that each appointee will be asked. And about two-thirds of them are the same question, with just very small differences in the formation of the answer so that you've got to keep going over and over it again.

And that's why about half of the Obama appointees will hire outside help to get them through this process, and many will spend considerable amounts of money to get their tax forms and get ready for the audits that come along as part of this.

It's a very serious problem in terms of people pulling themselves out of the process before it even begins and, as Jeff says, people leaving the process once they're in it.

Vacant Treasury positions

Paul Light
New York University
You don't have the middle vertebrae, the neck, if you will, of government. You've got the head of the Treasury Department. You've got the career people. It's kind of neck-less government, if you will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Jeff Zeleny, clearly they've toughened this up because of Daschle and Geithner's problems. How big a problem is it? I mean, we read the Treasury barely has anybody working there under Secretary Geithner. How bad is it there? And how many problems is it causing substantively for this administration?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, I think when you hear people who are very friendly to the president, like a Paul Volcker, you know, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, he said this is a big problem. He really sounded the alarm a while ago.

It's one of the reasons the White House on a Sunday morning, at 9 o'clock yesterday morning, announced that three people had finally been named to senior positions at the Treasury Department. It's been -- I would say that is the department that has suffered the most of this, at least in terms of a public relations hit.

If you talk to people throughout the agencies, they say, look, there are a lot of career people in place here. But it means that a lot of the decisions are being handled at the White House or not handled at all. They're being put on hold here.

So it really matters in places like HHS. It matters in, you know, the FDA, other places like that, you know, where some decisions have to be made, but they say, you know, it's only March. You know, by May, a lot of these positions should be filled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Paul Light, when you overlay the economic crisis over this, it makes it even worse than it looks, does it not?

PAUL LIGHT: Absolutely. One thing we need to recognize is that Tim Geithner is not wandering down a deserted hallway waiting for Norman Bates to jump out at him.

He's got 50 political appointees working for him who are hired by the president without Senate confirmation. He's got a chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff. Former Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling is there. He's got an automobile czar, so he's not alone.

But he doesn't have the Senate confirmed appointees in place, and they are the coin of the realm. They're the ones who can make decisions, execute policy. And the career civil servants who are absolutely terrific just really don't feel that they have the authority to execute.

That's the real problem here, that you have this de facto sub-cabinet that operates out of the secretary's office, but you don't have your true sub-cabinet in place because it's stuck on Capitol Hill or it's still being audited.

So you don't have the middle vertebrae, the neck, if you will, of government. You've got the head of the Treasury Department. You've got the career people. It's kind of neck-less government, if you will. You just don't have those vertebrae in place to transfer information on down and to move policy ideas on up.

Challenges to recruiting

Jeff Zeleny
New York Times
Democrats have not been in power for eight years, so of course some of them have worked in the lobby. So now some real jigsaw-puzzle action is going on here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's certainly one way to think about it.

Jeff Zeleny, you were just telling me that people you're talking to inside the White House, inside the executive branch are beginning to express candidly that maybe candidate Obama was maybe a little overzealous in saying he was going to change the way things worked in Washington.

JEFF ZELENY: There's no question. The central theme of the Obama campaign was to change the way Washington works. Candidate Obama talked a lot about these tough rules on ethics and tough rules on lobbyists. "We will not hire former lobbyists."

Well, when you want to fill this administration -- I talked to an administration official this afternoon who said, look, we have an economic crisis on our hands and two wars. You don't want people who haven't worked in government before.

Democrats have not been in power for eight years, so of course some of them have worked in the lobby. So now some real jigsaw-puzzle action is going on here. Someone without worked in the Defense Department, perhaps, or has been a lobbyist now may be looked at for an education job.

The rules say you cannot work in the area where you lobbied, so the point of these rules seemed good, appealing to Democrats, appealing to voters on the campaign trail, but now they're having real effects.

And some people have gone to President Obama and said, "You know, should we roll some of these back?" He says, "Absolutely not." He thinks that would be a hit on his core message. So it makes the office of personnel to go out and recruit people a little more difficult.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less than 20 seconds, Paul Light. Is there a way to fix this? Or do they just need to plow through it?

PAUL LIGHT: Cut the number of political appointees. Cut them in half. Get Congress to decide which ones are important. Get the Senate involved and cut the number of appointees.

They'll move faster. They'll be better. And we'll get more career people involved in the day-to-day operations of government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We hear you both. Paul Light and Jeff Zeleny, thank you both. Appreciate it.