How to solve the vacancies problem that looms over federal government

How to solve the vacancies problem that looms over federal government
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As the nation faces the tasks of fighting the coronavirus pandemic and rescuing the suffering economy, many critical government jobs remain empty or are filled by temporary acting officials. High profile vacancies and turnover at the Treasury Department and at the Homeland Security Department have hobbled those agencies as they seek to respond to these fast moving crises. Temporary acting officials lead hundreds of other agencies and programs across the federal government.

The simple but untapped solution to this problem is to reduce the number of appointed positions. The United States has more than 1,100 executive branch positions requiring nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senate, ranging from top cabinet secretaries to members of minor boards and commissions. Most developed countries, for some context, have anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred of these positions.

Finding qualified candidates to fill 1,100 vacant positions at the start of a new administration is a monumental task. Consider the time and money that companies spend trying to fill management positions. Multiply this task by 1,100 and add requirements related to the public sector, such as ethics rules, security clearances, financial divestitures, and more.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE made nominations to less than 40 percent of these jobs in 2017. President Obama received less criticism as he made nominations to over 50 percent of these positions in 2009. Indeed, early turnover can exacerbate the workload. Republicans and Democrats both agree that the appointee system is broken but provide different explanations.

Republicans decry obstructionism by Democrats, who point to the refusal of Trump to name qualified candidates or, in some cases, any candidate at all because he wants to downsize government and prefers flexibility with federal agencies. These disagreements mimic Republicans slowing down nominations and Democrats charging obstructionism under Obama.

Bipartisan solutions are hard to come by but not impossible. In 2011, the Senate agreed to an expedited process for nominations to 270 positions. In 2012, Congress passed legislation eliminating the Senate confirmation requirement for 170 positions. But neither of these actions in Congress sped up the pace of appointments. Indeed, Trump has been no faster naming candidates even with Senate confirmation as a low hurdle.

Cutting several hundred appointed positions is the best solution and must be an effort that both parties can support. In some cases, we need to cut positions by changing the way jobs are filled. In other cases, we can cut positions altogether. Legislation should target the positions regularly left vacant by presidents of both parties and change the way these positions are filled. This includes numerous assistant secretaries and administrators dealing with issues from global health to nuclear energy to food safety. It also includes scores of marshal and regional appointee positions.

Congress should work to eliminate or reduce the number of minor boards and commissions. There were more than 20 boards or commissions with vacancies that received zero nominations in the first years of the last two administrations. This includes the Harry Truman Scholarship Foundation, the National Association of Registered Brokers and Agents, and others. Congress should also fill important management roles such as assistant secretaries or chief financial officers with career professionals who can ensure continued attention to the performance of the agencies.

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Such changes would result in fewer vacancies and can be made without a loss of responsiveness. In fact, Congress made it easier to cut appointees in 1978 when it created the Senior Executive Service, which is a corps of about 7,000 high level managers, most of whom are experienced career professionals, who can be reassigned across federal agencies and offices as needed. Congress should change the law and fill many positions that are appointed by the president with managers from the Senior Executive Service. This will give the president flexibility to change leadership and choose from a large corps of experienced career professionals.

The 1978 law allows the president to name a limited number of outsiders to the Senior Executive Service for roles where an appointee is especially important. The president and Congress get the benefits of acting officials such as flexibility without the downsides of inexperience, short tenures, and the vacancies that have plagued the current administration.

These simple reforms can reduce the workload for both the White House and the Senate and allow each institution to focus their efforts on vetting qualified candidates to the consequential policymaking positions. They preserve responsiveness while improving the performance of agencies, which is important for all of us in moments of national crisis.

David Lewis is the William Kenan political science professor at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of “The Politics of Presidential Appointments.”