Counting heads: CRS tallies unfilled presidential appointments

vacant desk

More than one-fourth of cabinet department positions that require Senate confirmation remain vacant, according to a compilation by the Congressional Research Service.

The survey, which a congressional aide gave to FCW in late June on condition of anonymity, highlights the challenges facing President Obama—like his recent predecessors—in filling top posts throughout the government.

There is occasional Republican opposition to Obama's nominees in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but that's not the sole problem. Indeed, for at least a few dozen of the vacancies, the president has not even submitted nominations yet, several months into his second term.

CRS researchers looked at 346 posts in 15 departments that require Senate advice and consent. Of those, 90 were listed as vacant as of May 10.

Those so-called PAS positions are hardly a complete list of presidential nominees; CRS did not include top officials of regulatory agencies, many boards and commissions within departments, or federal judges. The list does, however, encompass most of the executive posts that set and shape strategy within key agencies.

The scope of these presidential vacancies, which include at least one in each cabinet department, illustrate what Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) has termed the "Swiss cheese" government. "At any given moment we are lacking critical leadership in numerous positions in just about every agency, undermining the effectiveness of our government," said Carper. As chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which has wide-ranging authority over government management, Carper has urged the Obama administration and Congress alike "to ensure that we have talented people in place to make critical decisions."

But even seemingly non-controversial selections are forced to confront an obstacle course before they are nominated and ultimately confirmed. During the final week in June, the Senate approved Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on 97-1 and 100-0 votes respectively—more than three months after each was formally introduced. General Services Administration Administrator Dan Tangherlini was confirmed by unanimous consent after a similar wait.

Other Obama nominees have become the focus of vigorous Senate Republican opposition—including Thomas Perez for Labor Secretary and Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Each currently holds a mid-level position in the administration to which they were confirmed early in the Obama Administration. The Senate battles over their promotions—and the Republican delaying tactics -- may come to a head in July.

But the more typical vacancies involve positions where Obama has yet to make a selection. The delays typically result from a variety of circumstances—including conflicts within the administration, the views of influential lobbying groups, and overworked White House officials who often engage in a form of triage to determine which openings require immediate attention.

By the Numbers

Agency Positions Vacant
Agriculture 14 5
Commerce 23 9
Defense 31 8
Education 16 6
Energy 23 9
HHS 19 2
DHS 20 6
HUD 12 2
Interior 19 7
Justice 24 10
Labor 15 4
State 47 12
Transportation 18 3
Treasury 25 3
VA 11 2

Source: Congressional Research Service

Many of these posts manage internal department activities, including personnel and IT. They include the chief financial officer at the Treasury, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development Departments; the Labor and Defense departments' inspectors general; and DOD's deputy undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

The research by CRS—which is part of the Library of Congress, and conducts studies at the request of senators and representatives -- also reveals the difficulty for those seeking to monitor high-level vacancies. CRS officials said that they obtained their data from department websites, leading to oversights and omissions even within their defined sample.

In fact, White House and Senate databases of nominations—whether deliberately or otherwise—fall short of basic standards for transparency. A list from the White House press office includes an alphabetical listing of more than 1,200 nominees since 2009, but includes neither their titles nor the dates of their nomination.

Likewise, the Senate's daily executive calendar and its database of Senate actions often omits the nominees' specific position. Seeking a list of Senate actions on all Obama nominees to a department, likewise, can be daunting.

And because the number of presidential appointees changes from one administration to the next, it's especially difficult to compare their relative success rates. A veteran Senate aide noted how hard it is to get good data on this issue; even lawmakers office must rely on CRS to search for these results. The only beneficiaries of these outdated recordkeeping systems, arguably, are the offices and individuals who control the nominations.

Experts on federal agency leadership concede the multiple challenges in finding top agency officials. "Nobody that I talk to is describing the political appointee process per se as being any kind of model of efficiency," Partnership for Public Service Vice President John Palguta said in a recent interview with FCW.


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