Appointments: Plodding Pace

By National Journal and Burt Solomon

March 31, 1997

It was your basic Washington pseudo-event.

On a patch of the Capitol lawn, nine members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus took turns at a movable rostrum and complained to a thin arc of reporters and political supporters on March 20 that the Clinton Administration is dissing Hispanics in filling its ranks for a second term.

"We find ourselves with an Administration that is looking less and less like America instead of more and more like America," Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., proclaimed, throwing President Clinton's own words back at him.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., the caucus chairman, said that he couldn't explain why the President and his headhunters, who've so consistently pushed for diversity, might be falling short. "Either there's a belief that there's not enough qualified Latinos," he charged, "or they're ignoring us."

"The commitment is still there," responded White House personnel director Bob J. Nash, the point man for a recruitment effort that isn't moving fast enough to please a broad variety of claimant groups.

Nash volunteered that Louis Caldera, a California assemblyman, has been chosen as the chief operating officer at the Corporation for National Service and that four other Hispanics are currently being cleared for posts that require Senate confirmation. He predicted that the proportions of such jobs held by ethnic minorities (6 per cent for Hispanics, 12 per cent for blacks and 3 per cent for Asian-Americans, by the latest count) will grow as appointments now in the works are approved.

But diversity takes time. Nash has met with the Hispanic Caucus and also with representatives of, among others, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, gays, the disabled and veterans. He says it can take longer to find qualified candidates from untraditional sources. Choosing them often involves a minuet between the White House and the agency involved. If a Cabinet officer suggests, say, a white woman for a job, the White House may counter by asking department officials to "look at a Hispanic male, a lesbian and a black woman [whose] resumes look good," an official in a Cabinet agency said. "These are political appointees. There are politics involved."

The quest for diversity is just one of the reasons that Clinton's second Administration has been slow to take shape. "I see [the transition] moving lethargically," a senior White House official said. The accusations of Democratic fund-raising improprieties have intensified the vetting of appointees and made it likelier that a Republican-run Congress will get in the way.

More than a quarter of the full-time Administration posts that need Senate confirmation are currently empty. These vacancies, usually filled on an acting basis, are spread unevenly around the executive branch. The Education Department and the Pentagon, for instance, are almost at full strength. At the other extreme is the Labor Department, the only Cabinet department whose chosen leader, Secretary-designate Alexis M. Herman, still awaits Senate action, with nine vacancies among its 19 top jobs. "The department needs somebody," a Labor official said. "There's definitely the feeling of a real void."

The Commerce Department, a focal point of the fund-raising scandal, is missing 10 of its 29 senior officials, with several more expected to leave by month's end. The Interior Department has no one confirmed to oversee surface mining, Indian affairs, fish and wildlife, national parks or the management of federal lands. The State Department has lost or is losing four of its five undersecretaries and at least seven of its 20 assistant secretaries. Fifteen ambassadorships are vacant, including those to Russia, Japan, Germany, France, Canada and South Korea.

How much this matters varies. "Legally speaking, until you're confirmed by the Senate, you're not allowed to make any managerial decisions," Geri D. Palast, assistant secretary of Labor for congressional and intergovernmental affairs, noted. An absence of leadership at Labor has delayed the implementation of a welfare-to-work program that will spend $3 billion over five years.

Part of the problem in filling the vacancies, ironically, is that there aren't enough of them. "There's not as much turnover in the departments as the White House anticipated," a political appointee at Commerce said, telling of friends who left the Administration to join Clinton's reelection campaign hoping "to return to grandiose jobs" but now find themselves unemployed. Democrats who didn't work in the campaign but want Administration jobs have been told to forget it.

Still, that leaves "tons and tons of people who still want to join the Administration" and can line up support from Members of Congress, governors, mayors, trade associations, ethnic organizations "and probably the Lippo Group," an appointee in another decimated department said. "I could see how that could be a formula for a sort of paralysis."

The White House and Cabinet officers probably see eye to eye more now than they did when Clinton was hiring his first Administration. The new Transportation Secretary, Rodney E. Slater, worked for Clinton in Arkansas for years, and Herman served on his White House staff. "The differences of opinion are less dramatic," a senior White House official said.

But Clinton and his policy makers have a government to run as well as an Administration to hire. And the head-hunting staff is considerably smaller than it was four years ago. Clinton's personnel operation totaled 220 people during his 1992-93 transition and 170 once he took office. Nash currently has a staff of 54; 30 of them are borrowed from agencies, but only until May 30.

Another reason for the plodding pace of appointments is the additional scrutiny inspired by the fund-raising scandal. "The bar is higher than 10 years ago, even than a year ago--even six weeks ago," a White House strategist said. Nash said that he might interview a candidate for 90 minutes instead of the usual 30 and phone 10 of the listed references instead of five. The FBI and Internal Revenue Service, he figured, might take two weeks longer than the customary 60-81 days to finish their investigations. "It's rougher, absolutely," Nash said of the vetting process.

Consider Stanley O. Roth's plight. The National Security Council's (NSC's) former expert on Asia has been chosen--though not yet nominated--as the assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific policy. His NSC duties included intercepting the sorts of Asian-American wheeler-dealers who've shared coffee with Clinton and caused him political havoc. This has surely given Roth's vetters fits.

Then there's no reason to think that the Republicans who control the Senate will move promptly on Clinton's nominations. They haven't so far. Just days before Anthony Lake withdrew as Clinton's nominee to run the CIA, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., reportedly was telling associates that he'd string Lake along until he pulled out. "The reason he could," a Democratic Hill aide said, "is that nobody's afraid of Clinton anymore."

Of 328 full-time posts still in need of Senate-confirmed occupants, Clinton has made nominations for 68--most of them renominations carried over from last year--and screening is under way for 90 others. A new burst of nominations will be announced, Nash said, once Congress returns from its Easter recess.

As vacancies get filled, however, others are sure to occur. Plenty of Administration officials are planning to leave over the next six to eight months.

A senior White House official foresees "cascading" vacancies, as senior sub-Cabinet posts are awarded to outsiders and disappointed inside candidates depart.

The rolling transition from Clinton's first Administration to his second Administration will take until July or August to complete, Nash predicted. "It's a rolling transition," another White House official quipped, that "will roll the entire year."

That wouldn't leave many more months before the midterm elections, which is when history suggests that a President's second term starts to unravel.


By National Journal and Burt Solomon

March 31, 1997

http://www.govexec.com/federal-news/1997/03/appointments-plodding-pace/2235/