Massive Vacancies at Defense and State Departments

There are far too many appointed positions in the US government. And many of them are unfilled.

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Foreign Policy updates us on a growing problem: a huge number of vacancies in critical foreign policy and defense posts:

More than 20 percent of the 53 senior political appointee positions across the building are either vacant or staffed with acting personnel, according to data provided to Situation Report. Among the jobs that require Senate confirmation, there are currently 11 filled by acting personnel, some for more than a year or longer. And with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Mark Lippert fleeting up to become the special assistant, or TSA, to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, as we were reported last week, the number of positions staffed by acting personnel will soon climb to 12.

And, another two positions — the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, and the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness — are simply vacant.

It’s not unlike the State Department, where The Cable’s Josh Rogin reported recently that a number of key jobs are vacant — or, for that matter, a number of other agencies across government, from Commerce to NOAA. “It’s a problem that ebbs and flows,” CSIS’s David Berteau told Situation Report, noting that the number of Senate-confirmed positions in the Pentagon was 46 under Bush 41 — now it’s 53, a 15 percent increase. “That’s not enormous, but it’s a pretty big number,” he said.

With each job, it’s a question of getting the White House to put a name forward, then getting through the hearing process, and then getting full Senate confirmation. Currently, Senate staffers tell us there is only one nominee awaiting confirmation by the Senate: Alan Estevez, to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. No one has been yet nominated by the White House for any jobs since Hagel arrived at the Pentagon. But Berteau notes that when there is new leadership, the already-slow process slows even more. “You do have the dynamic when a John Kerry or a Chuck Hagel come in, you’ll slow up the nominating process,” he said. They ask themselves, “Who do need, who do I got, where do I get to pick from?”

Some of this is the normal ebb-and-flow between administrations. While President Obama was re-elected, he’s virtually starting from scratch in terms of his cabinet. Kerry and Hagel are both new to their posts.

But, while congressional obstructionism is usually the key problem, this one seems to be mostly on the administration: they’re not putting names forward. Kerry, certainly, has been on the job long enough to have come up with the names of the key deputies he wants. That’s especially true considering that he already had a team at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Beyond that, though, this is another data point in support of a position I’ve held for some time: there are far, far too many appointed positions in our government. Yes, the president ought to be able to put his stamp on policy, and bringing in outsiders of his selection at the top leadership levels helps facilitate that. It makes sense to have appointed cabinet secretaries , deputy secretaries, and even undersecretaries. But do we really need to appoint assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries? Why not fill those from the ranks of the professionals of the Senior Executive Service?

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    But, while congressional obstructionism is usually the key problem, this one seems to be mostly on the administration: they’re not putting names forward.

    To what end? Obama could nominate John Frigging Bolton and he’d still get filibustered. Whoever he does nominate has to essentially put their professional life on hold until they get through the process, which can take months, and still have practically no hope of actually getting confirmed to the position. Who even wants to put their hat in the ring in such an environment?

  2. @legion:

    Yesterday the Senate unanimously approved the nominations of the President’s new Budget Director and a new Judge to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The idea that all the President’s nominations get filibustered simply is not true.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @legion: And that’s a fair point. But the fact of the matter is that 1) it’s the administration’s job to appoint people to fill the vacancies and 2) there are plenty of qualified people willing to go through the pain for the privilege of serving. Regardless, the obstacles reinforce my point: we should just have career professionals fill most of these billets.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    Well, all the libertarians want to cut down on the size of government, so what are you complaining about?

    The fact that it makes the government run even more inefficiently should simply be a bonus in your viewpoint. At some point you and Norquist can reduce government to something small enough to drown in a bathtub and we will have Libertarian Utopia.

    So don’t complain about the hours spent waiting for your planes to take off, or the 26,000 Appeals backlogged in the USPTO. It’s all exactly what you voted for.

  5. JKB says:

    there are far, far too many appointed positions in our government.

    But then where would all those BAs from the famous universities find work famous enough for their education. They might be force to make their way in life on their competency instead of their seat time. What exactly does an ivy league graduate in political science or international relations do if they can’t have their daddy procure them a deputy assistant undersecretary for pencil position? Go to work in, God forbid, (I mean, secular deity forbid) the profit sector? The non-profit sector seems saturated, plus ending up in an NGO pretty much puts you off the government wonk track.

  6. john personna says:

    Would you rather have fewer vacancies and more sequester?

    (In the best of all possible worlds defense and State would be right-sized, but in the meantime, at least vacancy and sequester point toward each other.)

  7. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    James Joyner says:
    Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 10:19

    @legion: And that’s a fair point. But the fact of the matter is that 1) it’s the administration’s job to appoint people to fill the vacancies and 2) there are plenty of qualified people willing to go through the pain for the privilege of serving.

    It’s not hard, Dr. Joyner. The President appoints. The Senate blocks, Doug’s two examples notwithstanding. That’s the current game.

    It’s a fact that this President has had a fewer number of nominations voted on, and confirmed, than anyone in history. To not place the blame purely on the obstructionist GOP is intellectually dishonest at the least, and outright lying at worst.

    Regardless, the obstacles reinforce my point: we should just have career professionals fill most of these billets.

    Oh, you mean the “career bureaucrats” that your team screams about every single day? Those “professionals”?

    You can’t have it both ways, Dr. Joyner. You can’t say “Let’s let professionals handle those jobs”, while being a part of the party that screams about “Washington Career Bureaucrats. ” Well, I guess you can, because you do. But it’s completely hypocritical.

  8. Caj says:

    Oh that’s good. Mitt Romney can get a real job now then. Hope he doesn’t mention that corporations are people my friend when it comes to the interview!

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    But, while congressional obstructionism is usually the key problem, this one seems to be mostly on the administration: they’re not putting names forward.

    That was a problem early in the Obama Administration as well. They didn’t name people until later than is typical.

    I know that the folklore is that Obama can’t get his appointments confirmed but that’s what it is—folklore. If you look at his judicial appointments they were confirmed at about the same rate as Bush’s or Clinton’s.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @grumpy realist: Aside from the crazies, nobody is arguing we should close the State Department, much less Defense. Those are core government functions. Most of the “small government” business relates to the welfare and regulatory system, not our foreign and security policy.

    @JKB: You simply can’t be this big an idiot. Most of the appointees to these jobs are decades out of school and would make far more money on the outside.

    @john personna: But this is the same problem as the sequester: cuts without rationality. There’s likely waste at State and DoD in the upper bureaucracy. Probably too many slots, period. But cut them after a rational process, not by happenstance.

    @EddieInCA: In this case, at least, the president isn’t appointing. You can’t blame Republicans for blocking appointees who haven’t been appointed.

    As to the “bureaucrats,” the complaints are about those in the middle levels who are coasting, not the Senior Executive Service, most of whom are working 50-60 hours a week. And, again, it’s a complaint about the regulatory and welfare state, not the conduct of foreign affairs.

  11. pylon says:

    Dave, in their first three years three of Clinton’s 151 district confirmations took longer than 180 days; 51 of Obama’s 97 confirmations took 180 days or longer. Three of Clinton’s 28 circuit confirmations were 180 days-plus. Twenty of Obama’s 25 circuit confirmations were. (These are all confirmations, not just those pre-August of the third years.)

    http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2012/1/13%20nominations%20wheeler/0113_nominations_wheeler.pdf

  12. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: Well, it sound like we’ve got a lot of crazies out there then…

    Defense isn’t going to be much use if we don’t have the scientists and engineers to design all those pretty bombs and aircraft, and if we don’t have a certain basic knowledge level of science and technology in the first place. You never know where your basic S&T will finally end up. Quaternions were developed back in 1843 but really came into play only a few years ago (the Air Force was trying to figure out why its computer-controlled jets were suddenly flipping on their backs during flight) when people discovered that a 2pi rotation is NOT the same as a 4pi rotation.

    Another example: fuel cells. Original concept and technology was back in early 1800s, actually only really developed with the Apollo space program.

    If we cut back on basic S&T in the US now, who knows what opportunity costs we’re storing up for ourselves in the future?

    Libertarians: eating the seed corn and then complaining that there’s no food the next year.

  13. legion says:

    @James Joyner:

    we should just have career professionals fill most of these billets.

    This I agree on. If, as it seems, this sort of adversarial gridlock is going to be the new standard in DC, we absolutely _have_ to find some way to insulate the actual business of government from political gamesmanship.

  14. legion says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    What @pylon said… Letting one through like that is hardly a viable counterexample.

  15. mantis says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Yesterday the Senate unanimously approved the nominations of the President’s new Budget Director and a new Judge to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The idea that all the President’s nominations get filibustered simply is not true.

    Congress needs an OMB director or they couldn’t whine so much about the president’s budget (or just lie, as they usually do, by claiming he never proposed one).

    Jane Kelly’s confirmation to the 8th Circuit Court is the fastest circuit court confirmation since Obama took office. The reason? Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the judiciary committee, is friends with her former boss.

    So you’re right. Republicans will let confirmation votes happen for positions they find politically advantageous to keep filled, or if they have a personal connection to the nominee. Otherwise, it’s obstruction all the way down. Thank you for further illuminating Republicans deeply cynical disdain for governance, the US Constitution, and the American people. Would you care to address the hundreds of nominees Republicans have blocked or slowed down for no good reason at all, or do you think you got a slam dunk with those examples?

  16. mantis says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I know that the folklore is that Obama can’t get his appointments confirmed but that’s what it is—folklore. If you look at his judicial appointments they were confirmed at about the same rate as Bush’s or Clinton’s.

    Total bullshit, as pylon notes.

  17. Scott says:

    The trouble with political appointees at lower levels is that too many of them don’t know what they are doing, they don’t have the technical skills or background to properly lead and manage. So the middle ranks get the blame for the incompetence. It is one thing to have appointees deal with policy but at some level it comes down to process and execution and the politicians simply can’t cut it.

  18. stonetools says:

    @EddieInCA:

    What Eddie said. The post can’t be upvoted often enough. Its really simple, Doug and James. Without your favorite party’s near treasonous levels of obstructionism, the positions would have been timely filled, the way it was before the Republicans started using the filbuster to hold up or block any nomination they had the least objection to.

  19. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “@JKB: You simply can’t be this big an idiot.”

    The triumph of hope over experience.

    “@john personna: But this is the same problem as the sequester: cuts without rationality. There’s likely waste at State and DoD in the upper bureaucracy. Probably too many slots, period. But cut them after a rational process, not by happenstance.”

    And the reason you believe that a rational process to get anything done in Washington will be passed by the Republicans in Congress (especially if the Obama Administration supports it) is…?

  20. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner:

    You can’t blame Republicans for blocking appointees who haven’t been appointed.

    Completely agree James. If the Republicans are going to be obstructionists – don’t make it easy on them. Bring back the in-person filibuster. Make ’em talk the entire time – or yield the floor. Lock the bathroom doors, but serve tea first. Force them to be honest about their tactics and bring on the sunshine. It is okay to play hard-ball.

    If the President, as has been suggested above, is holding back nominations because he fears they’ll be held up, then that is terrible leadership and he deserves what he gets. Because he is not facing reelection, Mr. Obama has a unique opportunity here, or rather an obligation, to disinfect the process as best he can. He must daily earn the right to bitch.

  21. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “@JKB: You simply can’t be this big an idiot”

    I’m thinking you don’t read most of the comments here…

  22. Blue Galangal says:

    @stonetools: Or using the filibuster to try to forcibly restructure an agency because they don’t agree with its existence.

  23. legion says:

    @Tony W: I’d be fine with all that except for the fact that appointments aren’t like being drafted – the appointee has to be _willing_. Could you tell your current job “Hey, I’ve got a possible appointment coming up. I might have to drop what I’m doing here on short notice and move my entire family to Washington at any point in the next 6-9 months. Or maybe not. Nobody really knows.” If it wasn’t for that, I’d be totally with you.

  24. Tony W says:

    @legion: Excellent point. Sounded like James was interested though 🙂