WASHINGTON — There's a stillness in the halls of the US government this spring - a leaden quiet that reflects the number of unfilled administration offices.
At least, that's the way it seems to many low-level workers. Three months into the second Clinton administration so many top-level jobs remain unfilled that the White House is threatening to break its own modern record for slowness in appointments.
Sluggish decisionmaking on the part of the White House may be a factor here. Revelations of Democratic fund-raising irregularities haven't helped, either - and may be particularly affecting top ambassadorial appointments.
But intense partisan scrutiny of even low-level job nominations has helped slow down the appointment process, say experts. There is more scrutiny by more scrutinizers.
"Twenty years ago if you smoked marijuana or had an affair, it wouldn't necessarily come to the public's attention," observes Stephen Wayne, presidential expert and professor of government studies at Georgetown University.
The appointment slowdown has created a leadership void and frustration in some departments. Consider some of the open jobs: The Labor Department has no official leader. The deputy attorney general slot is vacant. No one is at the helm at the Food and Drug Administration or at the Social Security Administration.
The White House says that of the 430 positions within agencies and Cabinet departments it is supposed to fill, roughly one-third are vacant.
In addition, 15 major US embassies around the world, including Paris and Tokyo, are ambassador-less. The White House has picked people for some of these choice posts - investment banker Felix Rohatyn for France, for instance - but has yet to shepherd their nominations through the Senate.
Those who have watched the evolution of the nomination process acknowledge President Clinton is slow, but add that the environment has changed.
There are more political appointee jobs to fill, for one thing. And checks a candidate must endure have become ever more stringent. The process includes lengthy disclosure statements and FBI background checks. Some positions require that assets be put in a blind trust.
"It has gotten out of hand. The bar has been raised to such a degree that any self-respecting individual who is asked to consider government service has to have their head examined," says Jim Cicconi, deputy chief of staff for former President George Bush.
Partisan pressures are adding to the slowdown. Clinton's nominee to head the CIA, Anthony Lake, was self-scuttled, citing the brutish partisan process.
Sometimes, nominees can simply become caught in the middle of a White House-Congress struggle. Currently, the vote on Alexis Herman's nomination to head the Department of Labor has been delayed as the Senate wrangles with the administration on a labor-related federal contracts issue that is unrelated to Ms. Herman's qualifications.
The cumulative effect of these modern confirmation problems has clearly become worse over time. On average, 2.4 months elapsed between the time John F. Kennedy designated nominees for a post and the time they got the green light to move into their office.
It took Richard Nixon an average 3.4 months to achieve the same staffing goals, according to data from Colby College Prof. Calvin MacKenzie. It took Jimmy Carter 4.6 months. In Ronald Reagan's first term, appointees waited 5.3 months for confirmation. Bush took 8.1 months. Clinton, now known for his insistence on reviewing the fine print of his nominees, averaged 8.5 months in his first term.