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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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Despite the tougher standards, Obama was on pace with or ahead of previous administrations in nominating key posts until the unexpected withdrawal of his nominee for secretary of health and human services, Tom Daschle, over an issue with back taxes and financial ties to the healthcare industry, Kumar said. After Daschle – the third top nominee to be plagued by tax issues – Obama significantly tightened the vetting process.

Before Daschle, nominations were announced after initial background checks, but before the entire vetting process had been complete. Afterwards, the White House opted to go public with a nomination only after a full scrubbing, with special emphasis on tax issues, according to a Pentagon adviser familiar with the vetting process.

“They got very risk averse,” he said, adding that additional staff had to be hired to do the checks. “That took time, and the process ground to a halt.”

For example, Obama’s nomination Monday of Harvard professor Ashton B. Carter to be undersecretary of defense for acquisition had been approved weeks ago, several officials said, but the announcement was held up to make sure nothing was missed, including a review of Carter’s expenses from his prior Pentagon service during the 1990s.

The Department of Defense is in better shape than most agencies, largely because Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed to stay on and has temporarily retained many Bush administration officials. Still, of the nearly 50 political appointments Obama must ultimately make at the Pentagon, only three have been named and confirmed by the Senate, while three more were nominated this week, including two yesterday. Obama also announced yesterday that three senior officials will stay on, including Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley.

Officials said the personnel logjam means delays in addressing several pressing issues, including submitting the details of Obama’s first defense budget request in April and reviewing force structure and nuclear weapons policy – not to mention the management of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We need those presidential appointments as quickly as we can,” said a senior military officer who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The State Department is in a similar situation. Only four out of some 50 senior diplomatic posts have been filled so far. Many assistant secretaries are staying in place until new appointments are made, and the department is relying on a strong career staff used to operating the diplomatic machinery.

The appointment of several senior-level special envoys who do not need Senate confirmation – Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan, George Mitchell on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and former Tufts dean Stephen Bosworth on North Korea – has also allowed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to get up and running quickly.

Still, the world appears impatient for the Obama administration to get its people in place. This week, a senior European official expressed frustration that so few senior people have been appointed to deal with crucial issues like free trade and commerce at a time of global economic woes.

“For the time being, it’s difficult for us to get a clear picture of what US policy will be,” he said. His colleagues have met with the American holdovers still serving in their posts, he said. “But they are the first to say, ‘We can only give you an old position. You will have to wait.’”

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