Most top-level Trea­sury posts stay empty in cri­sis

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SEAN LENGELL

Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Ti­mothy F. Gei­th­ner is try­ing to lead the U.S. econ­omy out of its dol­drums with — fig­u­ra­tively — one arm tied be­hind his back: Al­most nine months af­ter the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion took power, more than half of the 33 high­est-level Trea­sury Depart­ment posts are still va­cant.

Among those nom­i­nated by the White House but still await­ing Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion are the un­der­sec­re­taries for in­ter­na­tional and do­mes­tic fi­nance and the as­sis­tant sec­re­taries who over­see in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment, fi­nan­cial mar­kets and tax pol­icy.

The de­lays are in line with those un­der other ad­min­is­tra­tions, but with the econ­omy strug­gling to re­cover from the deep­est down­turn since the Great De­pres­sion, the de­mands for sound pol­icy de­ci­sions from the Trea­sury are any­thing but or­di­nary.

“It’s a ma­jor con­cern,” said Norm Orn­stein, a con­gres­sional an­a­lyst with the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, a con­ser­va­tive Wash­ing­ton think tank. “If we have an in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic cri­sis [. . . ] you don’t want to have a thin bench.”

The Se­nate has con­firmed 11 of Trea­sury’s high­est-level ap­pointees, while five of­fi­cials ap­pointed dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush have been asked to stay on. But eight nom­i­nees are await­ing con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings be­fore the Se­nate, and Trea­sury still must se­lect or for­mally nom­i­nate candidates to nine more top-level po­si­tions.

Only the Jus­tice Depart­ment has a lower rate of con­fir­ma­tion than the Trea­sury Depart­ment among Cab­i­net agen­cies.

Po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees are nom­i­nated by the pres­i­dent and typ­i­cally leave their posts when an­other ad­min­is­tra­tion takes of­fice. Ca­reer em­ploy­ees fill low­er­rank­ing jobs, and their ten­ure usu­ally is un­af­fected by who oc­cu­pies the White House.

Fed­eral agen­cies typ­i­cally take months or longer to fill posts at the start of a pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion. Pres­i­dent Obama’s over­all con­fir­ma­tion rate for Cab­i­net-level agen­cies — in­clud­ing Trea­sury — is com­pa­ra­ble to that of Mr. Bush dur­ing his first year in of­fice.

But Mr. Gei­th­ner and his depart­ment have a lot more on their plate than their re­cent pre­de­ces­sors did. The depart­ment over­sees the $787 bil­lion eco­nomic stim­u­lus pro­gram, the $700 bil­lion bank-bailout pro­gram and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s co­or­di­na­tion with other na­tions on the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. The depart­ment also has taken an ac­tive role in a leg­isla­tive push to over­haul fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion — an­other Obama pri­or­ity.

Al­though ca­reer em­ploy­ees tem­po­rar­ily fill some of the va­can­cies, some say the pres­i­dent does not have enough of his own peo­ple in place to ad­vance his am­bi­tious agenda.

“You need peo­ple in place — there’s only so many things that a [Trea­sury] sec­re­tary can do him­self,” said Mark Cal­abria, di­rec­tor of fi­nan­cial-reg­u­la­tion stud­ies at the Cato In­sti­tute, a lib­er­tar­ian think thank. “I can’t re­mem­ber the last time they’ve held a con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing” for a Trea­sury ap­pointee.

Many of the depart­ment’s most se­nior posts have been filled. They in­clude deputy sec­re­tary, filled by Neal Wolin; as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, filled by Michael Barr; as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, filled by Herb Al­li­son Jr.; as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for ter­ror­ist fi­nanc­ing, filled by David Co­hen; and gen­eral coun­sel, filled by Ge­orge Madi­son.

All three of the agency’s in­spec­tors gen­eral ap­pointed dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion have stayed on the job.

Yet an agency top-heavy with high-level po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees and too few ca­reer per­son­nel with strong in­sti­tu­tional knowl­edge of the depart­ment is a recipe for prob­lems, Mr. Orn­stein said.

“You’ve got lead­er­ship at the top with Gei­th­ner and a strong team of deputies,” he said. “But hav­ing your top leaders who have the au­thor­ity to make pol­icy [. . . ] and don’t want to act on their own, for the most part, is re­ally im­por­tant, es­pe­cially when you’ve got so many things to do.”

Trea­sury of­fi­cials have played down the va­can­cies, say­ing that they have enough po­si­tions staffed with qual­i­fied peo­ple to carry out the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mis­sion ef­fec­tively.

“We’re ac­tu­ally about where ev­ery­body is. It takes time,” said a Trea­sury of­fi­cial who re­quested that his name be with­held.

Staffers with the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, which must ap­prove Trea­sury nom­i­nees be­fore the full Se­nate can vote, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment on the record. But a se­nior com­mit­tee aide pri­vately com­plained that the White House has been slow to de­liver pa­per­work on the nom­i­nees re­quired for the panel’s vet­ting process.

With both par­ties on the com­mit­tee vet­ting each nom­i­nee sep­a­rately, the process can get back­logged eas­ily.

“Of those con­firmed, nearly all have been re­ported out or con­firmed within eight weeks of the date [the com­mit­tee] re­ceived their pa­per­work,” the aide said.

Com­mit­tee mem­ber and staffers also have been bogged down in re­cent weeks draft­ing health care re­form leg­is­la­tion, fur­ther de­lay­ing the con­fir­ma­tion process.

Trea­sury is not the only fed­eral agency fac­ing sig­nif­i­cant staff short­ages. As of Oct. 1 — 255 days into Mr. Obama’s pres­i­dency — only 271 of the White House’ 403 nom­i­nees sent to the Se­nate for con­fir­ma­tion have been ap­proved, ac­cord­ing to the non­profit White House Tran­si­tion Project. Mr. Bush had se­cured the con­fir­ma­tion of 268 nom­i­nees by the same date in 2001 — his first year in of­fice.

Many po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts com­plain that the con­fir­ma­tion process is so cum­ber­some that speed­ing up the cur­rent sys­tem is al­most im­pos­si­ble.

“The sys­tem of vet­ting, nom­i­na­tion and ap­point­ment has be­come to­tally dys­func­tional,” said Bill Gal­ston, a con­gres­sional an­a­lyst with the lib­eral-lean­ing Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “The dis­clo­sure re­quire­ments are ridicu­lous, and whichever po­lit­i­cal party hap­pens to be in op­po­si­tion uses de­lay as a po­lit­i­cal weapon.”

Mr. Obama’s first nom­i­nee for Health and Hu­man Ser­vices (HHS) sec­re­tary, for­mer Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Tom Daschle, with­drew af­ter it was re­vealed that he had failed to pay $140,000 in taxes and in­ter­est.

Even pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees who suc­cess­fully win Se­nate ap­proval are sub­jected to an ex­haus­tive, drawn-out vet­ting and con­fir­ma­tion process that of­ten re­veals em­bar­rass­ing per­sonal skele­tons.

The Se­nate even­tu­ally con­firmed the pres­i­dent’s sub­se­quent nom­i­nee to head HHS, Kath­leen Se­be­lius, but only af­ter she cor­rected three years of tax re­turns and paid $7,000 in back taxes for “un­in­ten­tional er­rors.”

Mr. Gei­th­ner was con­firmed only af­ter ex­tended ques­tion­ing about ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in his tax records that sur­faced dur­ing the nom­i­na­tion process.

“We need a new process, agreed to by both par­ties,” Mr. Gal­ston said.

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