Vacancy Signs Abound in Capital

Federal bureaucrats run much of machinery as Clinton hastens to get his team in place

GAINING control of the White House telephone system is battle enough - day after day of permanently clogged switchboards, phones ringing unanswered for minutes on end, and numbers going out of service just hours after White House aides give them out.

But that may be the easy part.

After 12 years of Republican rule, President Clinton and his team are finding out how difficult it is to change the course of the massive ship of state.

In fact, the Democratic takeover of the scores of agencies, commissions, and departments in the executive branch has hardly begun.

In hundreds of top government positions, either chairs are empty or career civil servants are performing the duties usually reserved for political appointees. Their agencies are mostly carrying on in status-quo mode, awaiting marching orders or new direction.

"It's frustrating because you want so much to happen so quickly," says Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, a liberal group that monitors the executive branch through the Office of Management and Budget.

Career bureaucrats can carry on the daily business of government, he says. "Then there are the things they were talking about in the campaign - `change,' `reinventing government.' The career people are not going to do that."

Some agencies have come to a virtual standstill. The drug czar's office, formally known as the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is one of the most adrift. It lost 42 percent of its staff, excluding people on detail from other agencies, on Inauguration Day.

The office is headed by the lone remaining Bush appointee, John Walters, who was supply-reduction director and chief of staff under the old regime.

President Bush's appointees are still running much of the machinery of government.

The most prominent example is the Justice Department, where Stuart Gerson, a 1988 Bush campaign adviser, is acting attorney general. Mr. Gerson was named to the post by former Attorney General William Barr in cooperation with then-nominee Zoe Baird.

To keep some control over matters, the Clinton White House has five officials stationed at the Justice Department for liaison and coordination. One of them has set up shop in the otherwise-vacant attorney general's office.

White House aides have dispatched hundreds of allies and former campaign workers to temporarily fill top offices in many agencies until they can nominate permanent officials. A presidentially appointed official can serve for up to 120 days without undergoing Senate confirmation.

The staff picture at the United States Information Agency (USIA) is not unusual. When Mr. Bush left office, so did more than a hundred top officials he had appointed to run the USIA. The agency is charged with presenting accurate information about the US to foreign audiences, and its programs include the radio broadcasts Voice of America and Radio Marti.

The acting director, until Mr. Clinton names a permanent one, is John Condayan, the only remaining Bush appointee at the agency. Three other posts are temporarily occupied by former mid-level Clinton campaign officials, two of whom have previous USIA experience. The other vacancies are filled for now with senior career civil servants from the agency.

Many of the agencies and commissions will take years for Democrats to gain control over. At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, three of the five commissioners are Republicans, the maximum number the law allows from any one party. The next term to expire ends June 30. But it belongs to a Democrat, James Curtis. So Clinton will probably have to wait longer than that to see his own values or priorities reflected there.

At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the commissioners now include three Republicans, one independent, and only one Democrat.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an agency that is increasingly critical to the future of the economy's most dynamic industries, has been without even an acting chairman since Jan. 19. Former chairman Al Sikes resigned on the last day of the Bush administration.

The four remaining commissioners are all Bush appointees, although one, James Quello, is a Democrat who was first appointed by Richard Nixon. Clinton can name both a fifth commissioner and choose a chairman at the FCC.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) under Bush was headed by Pat Saiki, a Republican who lost a race for the US Senate in Hawaii.

She raised some suspicion about just how political SBA loan practices were when she announced programs in New England, including New Hampshire, a few weeks before the New Hampshire primary.

It may have been coincidental. But the Clinton administration sent two people formerly affiliated with the Clinton campaign to run the SBA until permanent administrators are appointed.

Different agencies have many different levels of independence. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example, has ten board members appointed by the president for five-year terms, and they elect their own board president. Clinton currently has one vacancy to fill.

If the president wants to move his own people onto the Marine Mammal Commission, however, he will have to choose from a roster approved by the environmental protection administrator, the National Science Foundation director, the Smithsonian secretary, and the president of the National Academy of Sciences. Currently: no vacancies.

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