Homeland Security faces continued vacancies in high-level jobs

Vacancies in senior leadership positions at the Homeland Security Department are a vulnerability demanding immediate attention, the House Homeland Security Committee stated in a report released Monday.

According to the report, the department has 575 positions in the highest federal salary bands, referred to as executive resources. These include positions filled by presidential appointment, Senior Executive Service members and other appointments for nonexecutive positions above the GS-15 level. Of the 575, 138 were vacant as of May 1, the committee said.

The report said the vacancies are "a critical homeland security issue that demands immediate attention," but did not make specific recommendations for action.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was overhauled after Hurricane Katrina and has faced extensive pressure to meet hiring goals, continues to have the largest number of senior level vacancies despite several hiring frenzies in anticipation of hurricane season. FEMA does not, however, have the largest number of vacancies relative to the number of total executive resources.

With 24 of its 77 executive resources vacant, FEMA ranked fifth for percentage of senior positions vacant. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, the Office of the General Counsel, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Citizenship and Immigration Services all had a greater percentage, according to the report. With 11 of 23 senior slots vacant, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy had the highest percentage, at 48.

DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner said these agencies, along with several others falling directly behind FEMA on the list, were approved for senior level expansion by the Office of Personnel Management in March. While new positions have been created, many have not been filled, as the hiring process generally takes months, Keehner said. She said the department is actively recruiting for all of the 130 or so executive resource vacancies that remain.

The report acknowledged the March expansion as a possible step toward resolving vacancies but urged the department to fill them quickly and with nonpartisan federal employees.

"Unless these positions are filled in the next few months mainly by qualified and experienced career civil servants who will have time to assume the main department functions, the problem will remain. And so will the enhanced threat to homeland security," the report said.

"Homeland Security was bruised when the country learned that Michael Brown, an Arabian horse aficionado, was running FEMA," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the committee, in a statement. "But what's worse than a Homeland Security organization with poor leadership is a homeland security organization with no leadership."

The executive summary of the report, prepared by the Democratic staff of the committee, expressed concern over the unusually high number of "critical national security jobs" at DHS filled by political appointment. The summary cited a National Journal article warning that the high level of political appointees in the department could lead to chaos during the transition to a new administration in 2009.

Keehner said only nine of the 138 senior vacancies will require political appointments.

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