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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

The Agency That Has Never Had a Confirmed Director

Andrew Traver Andrew Traver Charles Rex Arbogast\AP

Sometimes inside government issues -- say, for example, the confirmation process -- actually turn out to be relevant to real-world crises. Actually, lots of times.

Here's President Obama today, in his press briefing on gun control and the fiscal cliff:

Considering Congress hasn’t confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in six years -- the agency that works most closely with state and local law enforcement to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals. I’d suggest that they make this a priority early in the year.

That's right -- the agency (its official title is actually the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) that plays a leading role in the effort to limit gun violence hasn't had a confirmed director in six years. In fact, it's never had one. Since ATF was removed from the Treasury Department and the Senate was given the authority to confirm its director, it has had a series of acting leaders because no one has managed to pass muster on Capitol Hill. President Obama's choice, Andrew Traver of the agency's Chicago office, ran afoul of the National Rifle Association and other organizations and his nomination has languished.

This is the kind of issue that everyone should keep in mind the next time government fails to get its job done. The institutional, mostly political barriers, to effectively managing in the federal sector are many and varied.

Obama also asked Vice President Joe Biden to head up an effort to develop a set of policy proposals to address gun violence that he pledged "to push without delay." But in so doing he took a swipe at standard operating procedure when it comes to policy development (and management overhauls) in government. "This is not some Washington commission," Obama said. "This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside.This is a team that has a very specific task to pull together real reforms right now."

It might be good to remember those words the next time he suggests that a commission is the answer to a burning issue.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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