- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

The White House has filled important policy jobs at the two departments essential to President Obama’s domestic priorities at a much slower rate than elsewhere in his administration after eight months of being in charge of the government.

At the Treasury Department, which is overseeing one of the largest financial-rescue plans in history, just 12 of the 33 high-level posts requiring Senate confirmation have been filled. At the Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for responding to a potentially deadly swine flu outbreak this fall, only eight people have been confirmed among the top 20 posts.

Only the Justice Department has a lower rate of confirmation. Other departments, including Transportation, Agriculture and Interior, have more than 60 percent of their top policymaking appointees in place.

While career employees temporarily fill some of the vacancies, there’s concern that the president doesn’t have enough of his own people in place to advance his ambitious agenda.

“It’s just not a healthy thing to have a large number of vacancies in a particularly uncertain time,” said Paul Light, a professor at New York University and a specialist on government bureaucracy. “It should concern us.”

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

By the end of August, Obama had nominated 243 people to the 385 high-ranking policymaking jobs at Cabinet departments that require Senate confirmation, according to the White House Transition Project. The Senate has confirmed 193 of them.

That’s on track with Mr. Obama’s predecessors at this point in their administrations, said Terry Sullivan, executive director of the independent, nonpartisan program that follows presidential appointments.

Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, had 55 percent in place, though he had about 50 fewer jobs to fill.

The White House prefers to slice it a little differently to get themselves an even better grade.

The Obama White House says that by adding positions such as ambassadors and judges, which also require Senate confirmation, as well as lower-level political appointees that don’t, the administration is filling jobs 50 percent faster than any of the previous three presidents at the same stage in their administrations.

The project doesn’t track that list, and without Senate confirmation there is no way to follow this through votes in the Congressional Record.

Regardless of the Obama administration’s overall success, however, the high-level vacancies at Treasury and HHS are particularly striking.

Mr. Obama has made improving the economy and overhauling health care the defining issues of his early presidency.

Treasury is overseeing the $787 billion financial stimulus, a bank-bailout program and other emergency response efforts; a legislative push to overhaul financial regulation; and the government’s coordination with other nations on the global economic crisis.

HHS is a nerve center for the government’s response and preparation for swine flu, which could infect up to half of the U.S. population this year. Top officials are deeply involved in negotiations with Congress on health care reform and would have much of the responsibility of putting in place any reform bill that gets passed.

The White House has moved some policymaking jobs into its quarters, appointing at least two dozen “czars” who take on the work of advancing the president’s agenda but who don’t require Senate approval. At least nine are focusing on domestic policy, including Nancy-Ann DeParle on health care and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker on the economy.

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