Hiding vacancies

According to a General Accounting Office report, many federal agencies are ignoring a law that requires them to report vacancies in certain executive positions.

The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (VRA) requires agencies to inform Congress and GAO of vacant positions that require presidential appointment and Senate confirmation—PAS positions. The VRA is intended to create a clear process and a time limit to filling PAS positions, which are essential policy positions that should be filled as soon as possible.

The law requires agencies to inform Congress and GAO whenever: (1) a PAS position becomes vacant, (2) a vacant position is filled on a temporary basis, (3) a nomination is made to the Senate to fill a vacancy or (4) a nomination for the position is rejected, withdrawn or returned. The act also specifies limits on the time PAS positions can be filled on an acting basis.

GAO found that many agencies are not promptly reporting all PAS vacancies. It found that agencies had not reported 17 vacancies (19 percent) and 21 acting appointments (24 percent). Moreover, half the information reported to GAO came in more than four weeks late.

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said, "One would have to wonder why an agency would continue to violate the Vacancies Act by failing to accurately report to Congress and GAO."

Perhaps the delay reflects some political chicanery within an agency. Careerists may want to delay reporting such vacancies so that the position can remain unfilled, allowing those bureaucrats to usurp their political superiors. Another reason might be to allow agency political appointees to circumvent established procedures while the position remains vacant. And finally, there's always the possibility that the agencies are just screwing up.

A March 2001 presidential memorandum streamlined the VRA notification process by requiring agencies to send notifications directly to Congress and GAO instead of through a previously used indirect route. The new process was supposed to reduce the time it takes agencies to notify Congress and GAO, but apparently it didn't.

GAO also found four temporary appointments that had exceeded the VRA's 210-day limit for temporary appointments. Technically, after 210 days, actions taken by a temporary appointee have no force or effect under the law unless specifically exempted. Who knows how many actions have been taken by such "illegals" that aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

At the Institute of Museum and Library Services, GAO found that an individual served as the agency's acting director for 5 months beyond the 210-day time limit. Agency officials told GAO that the individual had taken no inappropriate actions after this time. I guess that means this guy was on the government payroll for five months but took no accountable actions. Not bad! I wish I had it that easy.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at miltzall@starpower.net.

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