Top Treasury posts vacant in finance crisis

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Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is trying to lead the U.S. economy out of its doldrums with - figuratively - one arm tied behind his back: Almost nine months after the Obama administration took power, more than half of the 33 highest-level Treasury Department posts are still vacant.

Among those nominated by the White House but still awaiting Senate confirmation are the undersecretaries for international and domestic finance and the assistant secretaries who oversee international development, financial markets and tax policy.

The delays are in line with those under other administrations, but with the economy struggling to recover from the deepest downturn since the Great Depression, the demands for sound policy decisions from the Treasury are anything but ordinary.

“It’s a major concern,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “If we have an international economic crisis … you don’t want to have a thin bench.”

The Senate has confirmed 11 of Treasury’s highest-level appointees, while five officials appointed during the administration of President George W. Bush have been asked to stay on. But eight nominees are awaiting confirmation hearings before the Senate, and Treasury still must select or formally nominate candidates to nine more top-level positions.

Only the Justice Department has a lower rate of confirmation than the Treasury Department among Cabinet agencies.

Political appointees are nominated by the president and typically leave their posts when another administration takes office. Career employees fill lower-ranking jobs, and their tenure usually is unaffected by who occupies the White House.

Federal agencies typically take months or longer to fill posts at the start of a presidential administration. President Obama’s overall confirmation rate for Cabinet-level agencies - including Treasury - is comparable to that of Mr. Bush during his first year in office.

But Mr. Geithner and his department have a lot more on their plate than their recent predecessors did. The department oversees the $787 billion economic stimulus program, the $700 billion bank-bailout program and the administration’s coordination with other nations on the global financial crisis. The department also has taken an active role in a legislative push to overhaul financial regulation - another Obama priority.

Although career employees temporarily fill some of the vacancies, some say the president does not have enough of his own people in place to advance his ambitious agenda.

“You need people in place - there’s only so many things that a [Treasury] secretary can do himself,” said Mark Calabria, director of financial-regulation studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think thank. “I can’t remember the last time they’ve held a confirmation hearing” for a Treasury appointee.

Many of the department’s most senior posts have been filled. They include deputy secretary, filled by Neal Wolin; assistant secretary for financial institutions, filled by Michael Barr; assistant secretary for financial stability, filled by Herb Allison Jr.; assistant secretary for terrorist financing, filled by David Cohen; and general counsel, filled by George Madison.

All three of the agency’s inspectors general appointed during the Bush administration have stayed on the job.

Yet an agency top-heavy with high-level political appointees and too few career personnel with strong institutional knowledge of the department is a recipe for problems, Mr. Ornstein said.

“You’ve got leadership at the top with Geithner and a strong team of deputies,” he said. “But having your top leaders who have the authority to make policy … and don’t want to act on their own, for the most part, is really important, especially when you’ve got so many things to do.”

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