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Government Vacancies Abound in Crucial US Posts

Government Vacancies Abound in Crucial US Posts

So far, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, with the president, has had to rely on holdovers from the Bush administration because nominations for senior posts at Treasury and other agencies have slowed due to tighter vetting. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

By Farah Stockman and Bryan Bender | The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON – As President Obama rolls out one of the most ambitious agendas in US history, federal agencies are struggling to administer hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new projects and to enact sweeping policy changes with a mere handful of senior staff members in place, in part due to an increasingly tough vetting policy initiated by Obama himself.

Only about 70 people have been formally nominated to fill the roughly 500 senior posts in the Defense, State, Treasury, and Education departments and dozens of other government agencies, according to White House records. Dozens of nominations are still pending as FBI and White House officials scrub potential nominees’ tax returns, financial ties, and former activities in government.

It is not unusual for a new administration to take several months to fill political slots, but the absence of senior officials has been felt more keenly under Obama, who is vowing to quickly disburse a $787 billion stimulus package, revamp education and healthcare, and tackle two ongoing wars.

“It is extraordinarily unusual to have something like this stimulus package” this early in an administration, said Joel D. Aberbach, director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of California at Los Angeles. “There has been this big expansion of mission in some areas, so that may exacerbate the consequences of appointments taking awhile.”

The situation, which some say is tying up the administration’s agenda, was spotlighted yesterday when White House economic adviser Paul Volcker called the absence of senior Treasury officials “shameful.”

“The Secretary of the Treasury is sitting there without a deputy, without any undersecretaries, without any, as far as I know, assistant secretaries responsible in substantive areas at a time of very severe crisis,” Volcker told a Joint Economic Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. “He shouldn’t be sitting there alone.”

“You can’t be the leading economic power in the world with all the problems we have and have a weak Treasury,” he added.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who is helping to oversee the stimulus package, revamp the financial rescue plan and decide whether to loan billions more to the auto industry, is so far the sole official listed on the department website. Two other senior officials have been nominated to posts and a third has been asked to stay on, but so far Geithner has been forced to rely on temporary holdovers from the Bush administration and overworked career staff members. An army of temporary private attorneys has been hired to write the contracts that inject capital into more than 30 banks a week, but some Treasury officials say that other offices are severely hampered.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has received $115 billion in economic stimulus money – almost twice the department’s normal annual budget – including $5 billion of discretionary funding to spur education reform, an amount far higher than any previous education secretary ever has been given. The first wave of funding is meant to be spent in March. But so far, only one of 16 senior officials has been nominated to Duncan’s team, so planning is being done by aides, temporary helpers, and career staff.

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