Report: Obama team has too many vacancies

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has filled key government jobs about as fast as the Bush administration, but too many top positions — about 40 percent — remain vacant nearly one year after Obama took office, says a report being released Wednesday.

While the study by the Partnership for Public Service praised Obama for a well-organized transition last year, it also knocked the president’s team and Congress for filling top posts too slowly. Among them: the Transportation Security Administration and the Customs and Border Protection agency — two agencies tasked with keeping terrorists off planes, a key area of failure in the attempted Christmas Day airliner attack.

“We live in a very dangerous world whereby we can’t afford any lapse in leadership,” said Max Stier, president of the partnership, a Washington-based advocacy group that works to improve government service.

Other top jobs with no permanent replacement: deputy under secretary for benefits at the Veterans Affairs Department, a post that helps provide benefits and services to the nation’s veterans, and under secretary for food safety at the Agriculture Department, a position that oversees the country’s meat and poultry inspection.

“They did as good a job as anyone has ever done,” Stier said of the Obama transition, “Our point is that’s not good enough.”

The partnership looked at about 500 top-tier positions in the federal government, and found that as of Dec. 31, just 305 of those were filled — about 59 percent. Another 67 had been nominated and were awaiting Senate confirmation.

In comparison, former President George W. Bush had filled 62 percent of the top-tier positions after his first year.

The partnership says part of the blame for the large number of vacancies is what it considers the Obama team’s too-stringent disclosure requirements for potential nominees. Those were tightened after embarrassing tax questions surfaced over the nominations of now-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Sen. Tom Daschle, who Obama had tapped to run the Department of Health and Human Services.

Also getting blame was the Senate, where nominations have been delayed for various reasons, including “holds” placed by senators for political and policy concerns. For example, Obama tapped Erroll Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration in September, but confirmation has been blocked by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who says he’s worried Southers would allow TSA employees to join a labor union.

The report recommends major fixes before the next election, such as reducing the number of political appointees that need Senate confirmation. It’s estimated that more than 1,100 Cabinet, agency, board and other positions require Senate approval.

Another recommendation is that presidential candidates get started as early as possible on a would-be transition to the White House, long before the general election. Congress, the report said, should require candidates for the two parties to publicly name a transition director within two weeks of receiving the nomination and make money available for a pre-election transition.

The report praises both the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama team for a transition last January that was mostly smooth. It noted that former President George W. Bush, concerned about terrorism, decided well before the 2008 election that he wanted a seamless changeover to the new administration. And for Obama, the report said, he created a solid transition strategy in the spring of 2008 that was “highly structured, well-funded and well-managed.”


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