Editorial: Vacancy Rate

Posted November 17, 2009 at 6:13pm

We stipulate that the empty desk/empty bench syndrome afflicting the federal government is fundamentally President Barack Obama’s fault.

But the Senate shares some of the blame for the high vacancy rate in the executive branch and on the federal bench. Partisanship has a lot to do with it, but so does a failure to reform the confirmation process.

The facts are these: Nearly 200 top positions in the executive branch remain vacant more than a year since Obama was elected, along with 99 judgeships — including such vital offices as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, chiefs of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, plus two slots on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Even with a 60-vote Democratic Senate, Obama is running behind all his recent predecessors in jobs filled — 366, compared with 421 at this point for George W. Bush, 379 for Bill Clinton and 480 for Ronald Reagan, according to USA Today’s count.

And, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Obama has nominated only 26 judicial candidates besides Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Six have been confirmed by the Senate, eight are pending on the Senate calendar, and 12 await action by the committee.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein, a Roll Call contributing writer, blames the administration for the lion’s share of the delays — especially the cumbersome ethics clearances that the administration has put into place and the failure to devote adequate personnel to the appointment process.

And, he points out, it’s downright dangerous for the country to have only 12 of 33 top jobs at the Treasury Department filled, 30 of 53 at the Pentagon and 11 of 20 at the Department of Homeland Security.

But it’s not all Obama’s fault. Two years ago, Ornstein sent a memo to Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who admirably act virtually as co-chairs of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, suggesting a series of reforms to streamline the confirmation process — including reducing the number of posts requiring Senate approval and reduction of the paperwork demands of the process. Nothing ever happened.

And then — always — there’s partisanship. Republicans howled when they were in the majority and minority Democrats obstructed nominations and even filibustered Bush judicial selections. Now, they’re doing exactly the same thing.

The case receiving the most attention has been Obama’s first judicial nominee, David Hamilton, who’s been subjected to a threatened GOP filibuster despite the claim by Republican leaders in 2005 that judicial filibusters (by Democrats) were unconstitutional.

We said back then, watch out, Democrats — some day you’ll be in charge again and you won’t like “turnabout is fair play.— Now, we say the same to Republicans. Slow-walk Obama nominations now and Democrats will slow-walk the next GOP president’s nominations. Doesn’t anyone ever learn?