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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

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“The fact that the current staff has added responsibilities certainly puts more pressure on them, but they seem to be rising to the occasion,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based coalition of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, including Boston. “I’m not worried about it at the moment. If the same situation existed in six months, I probably would be worried.”

But White House officials say it is vital to keep standards high, and that the Obama administration has already passed key pieces of legislation, even with limited senior staff.

“President Obama understands that the challenges we face are historic and the objectives he’s set forth for this nation are significant, so the president sets a very high bar for anybody that works for this administration,” said White House spokeswoman Moira Mack, adding that Obama is “already making great strides.”

Asked about Volcker’s complaint, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama is committed “to ensuring that we have as many people and as quickly as possible that we can get into this government,” and that there are “many able people assisting” Geithner.

He also cited figures from a much broader group of nearly 8,000 appointees that showed 483 in place, nearly double the number of the prior three administrations at the same point.

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The level of vacancies is forcing some decisions to be delayed. For instance, the Office of Management and Budget had to postpone a decision about whether new strategic plans should be done agency by agency, or governmentwide, according to John Kamensky, a former Clinton administration official who is now a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, a think tank in Washington.

But Kamensky said that the lack of political appointees can also be a good thing: The few senior officials who are in place now have more power to act quickly on bold decisions, with less opposition from within the bureaucracy. “You can get bolder policy initiatives acted on because there are fewer people to second-guess them,” he said.

Obama began carefully planning his transition last summer, months before he was elected, submitting names of possible appointees for security clearance and vetting. The day he took office, he nominated 34 people – including most of his Cabinet – to take advantage of a 2004 Senate resolution that offers a fast-track 30-day confirmation to nominations submitted on Inauguration Day.

But the very next day, he also issued an executive order outlining the most rigorous ethical standards ever for appointees, disqualifying those who had lobbied in the past two years from working on the same issues.

While widely lauded, the move also heightened public scrutiny of his nominees, according to Martha Kumar of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, which studies presidential transitions. The new rules have delayed some appointments, including Raytheon executive William J. Lynn III as deputy defense secretary. He required a special presidential waiver.

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