An `Acting' Administration

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THE year draws to a close, and with it goes one quarter of Bill Clinton's first term. Yet dozens of subcabinet and hundreds of Schedule C and Special Executive Service (SES) positions - political appointments that do not require Senate confirmation - in the executive branch remain unfilled.

The departments of state, defense, justice, and education, the EPA and other agencies, are among those staffed with ``acting'' assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, and special assistants. Over the past few decades, it has taken more and more time for the incoming president to fill these vacant positions, and it has now reached crisis proportions.

Under the previous four presidents, appointments usually were made by early spring, and the Senate confirmation process was more or less complete by mid-summer. Already, that is a significant portion of a president's first term. During the 1992 campaign, expectations were raised for a Rooseveltian 100 days. But without a staffed executive branch, it is nearly impossible to replicate this feat.

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Recent presidents have had little trouble filling White House staff positions, ranging from the economic and national security advisers to the chief of protocol. These positions are not subject to Senate confirmation. Once the president nominates an individual for these offices, and once they are vetted, they are hired.

The Senate's power to confirm or reject a political appointee has often been used to remind the president that his power over the executive branch is not absolute. It is also not uncommon for a group of senators to use a nominee as a political football and thereby embarrass or humble the president. Note the legacies of Lani Gunier and John Tower, and the current problems faced by Morton Halperin.

The Senate confirmation process has not changed significantly in 1993, but the pace of confirmations has. President Clinton's White House has exercised an unusual amount of control over appointments. In the past, Cabinet secretaries often nominated their own deputies; Clinton has insisted that most appointees be scrutinized, vetted, and selected by the White House with little say given to the Cabinet secretaries. While this process is not unique to Clinton, the White House has been particularly determined to seek nominees who are personally acquainted with the Clintons. This has created a bottleneck at the White House. There, appointments compete with other items for a place on the agenda, and in the rough and tumble of Washington politics, they have not competed well.

THE quality of the nominees aside, the severe understaffing of the upper level bureaucracy is wreaking havoc. With limited mandates and tenuous security, acting secretaries tread a very fine line. When Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was confirmed late this summer, he and the White House were admonished by Democrat and Republican senators for acting as if he was already confirmed before he actually was, and he came close to being rejected because of it. That has sent a message of caution to acting nominees. In other cases, there are no nominees, just individuals from within the departments temporarily filling the role.

Even those who believe that the federal bureaucracy is an unwieldy behemoth agree that a functioning bureaucracy is essential to good government. At present, the executive branch approximates a table with three legs, standing but unstable. The quality of appointments is of paramount importance, but centralizing the process so completely is no guarantee of quality. Indeed, it may be counterproductive: The prevalence of empty positions becomes more and more problematic as time goes by and the pressure to fill them rises. The White House does not have the time or the capacity to control appointments to the degree that it is attempting to.

With many posts still officially vacant, Cabinet departments and agencies are left to improvise, circumvent regulations, and hope for the future. Meanwhile, the Senate delays hearings on some nominees and is waiting to schedule hearings on those still to be appointed.

The White House is controlling all major policy by intent or default, and the departments are running on the steam of the permanent bureaucracy. It does not bode well for the next three years when one year has been spent getting started.

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