Obama tightens appointments after gaffes

The Obama administration has tightened up its in-house vetting in the wake of problems with several nominees.

The higher level of scrutiny is the main reason President Obama’s nominee for trade representative has yet to receive a hearing, according to Sen. Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusOvernight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor Judge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester MORE (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Finance Committee.

ADVERTISEMENT

“To be honest, given some of the history of other appointees, the administration is tightening up,” Baucus told reporters Thursday before catching himself.

“No, that’s not the right word,” he continued. “They want to make sure that the nominees pass muster, and that just takes time."

Two nominees ran into problems while being vetted by Baucus’s committee, and one of them, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), withdrew his nomination as Department of Health and Human Services secretary.

That followed problems with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who neglected to pay taxes on salary he earned while serving at the International Monetary Fund. He survived, despite criticism from Finance members.

Nancy Killefer withdrew from consideration to be the federal government's chief performance officer after reports she failed to pay some taxes.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) withdrew as the Commerce secretary nominee after a lawsuit threatened to ensnare his administration, while Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) withdrew his own nomination, citing irreconcilable policy differences with Obama.

The White House is “tightening up the vetting process based on the experience with Richardson and the experience with Daschle,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “They don't want to run into any more problems and they know they're being watched very closely.”

Obama’s pace of nominations remains ahead of Presidents Clinton's and George W. Bush's, but the increased internal scrutiny could slow him down. Five weeks into his tenure, hundreds of positions remain unfilled.

In regard to perhaps the most pressing vacancy, Obama must still find a replacement for Daschle to fill a position critical to his hopes for healthcare reform.

Baucus suggested it is difficult for a new administration to handle all of its appointments, especially when it's also grappling with a recession, a turbulent stock market and troop withdrawals from Iraq. In five weeks, Obama has pushed forward broad proposals for dealing with the financial and housing crises and shepherded a $787 billion economic stimulus bill through Congress.

“It’s hard for a new administration to do everything all at once,” Baucus said. “It’s very, very hard.“

Just 51 officials have been named to fill the 581 posts requiring Senate confirmation, leaving gaping holes at 29 different government agencies, according to a review of nominations the White House has announced. As of Thursday, just 28 of Obama's nominations had been confirmed.

Still, this is better than Bush or Clinton, something the White House crowed about on Thursday.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that by the end of February, the new administration will have put into place more political and schedule C appointees than the past three presidents had at the same time. Gibbs said that as of the end of the month, the Obama team has 483 appointees in place, while the first President Bush had 279, President Clinton had 286 and President George W. Bush had 288.

According to a review by The Hill, 21 of Bush’s confirmable nominations had been announced at this point in his administration, including 14 Cabinet secretaries, the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Trade Representative and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

President Clinton had named 16 confirmable nominees through the end of his inaugural month in office, though he did not name any to several key departments. One of those nominees, Attorney General pick Zoe Baird, withdrew her name just six days later, after it was revealed she employed undocumented workers.

Obama must still appoint dozens of deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and administrators.

At the Defense Department, 16 of 27 posts are vacant. Forty-one of 44 positions remain open at the State Department. This does not count the host of ambassadorships to foreign countries typically appointed later in an administration.

Obama has also named candidates to fill just nine of 213 positions at the Department of Justice — by far the department with the largest number of appointees, given that the Senate must confirm all 93 United States attorneys and 94 U.S. marshals.

The Treasury, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education departments all have secretaries, but no candidates to serve as their subordinates have been announced.

Many positions are being filled on a temporary basis. For example, Rand BeersRand BeersNational security figures urge Trump to disclose foreign business ties DNC creates cybersecurity board The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE, a longtime counterterrorism expert who served for years on the National Security Council, is the acting deputy secretary in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Other officials are serving in “acting” capacities throughout the administration.

Several other positions in DHS are still being filled by Bush administration appointees, including the assistant secretaries in charge of the Office of Policy Development and state and local law enforcement, as well as Undersecretary for Management Elaine Duke.

The slow pace is common for a new administration attempting to fill so many jobs, and it has renewed some calls for the nominating system to be overhauled.

“It is not unusual for a White House to be up and running weeks or even months before the Cabinet is," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton.

“That's unfortunately built into our modern, tortuous vetting and confirmation process that is in need of fundamental reform,” he added.

Galston pointed to Geithner, who has expressed frustration that his second tier of secretaries is not yet in place.

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

Sam Youngman contributed to this story.