On Hold

Several key Obama nominations are stuck in the Senate, to the detriment of federal operations.

When President Obama named Martha Johnson to head the General Services Administration last April, he had been in office just 75 days, the 2009 Major League Baseball season had yet to begin and Michael Jackson was preparing for a comeback tour. Now, the president has settled in for his second year in office, pitchers and catchers are preparing to report for the 2010 baseball season and the King of Pop is gone. But Johnson still is waiting to assume what is arguably one of the most important management positions in government.

A former GSA chief of staff during the Clinton administration, Johnson sailed through her June confirmation hearing, receiving unanimous support from members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. But since August, her nomination has been blocked by a hold from Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.

The hold has little to do with Johnson's qualifications. Instead, Bond is using her nomination as leverage to force GSA to close down the Bannister Federal Complex, a series of buildings outside Kansas City that houses 1,200 government employees, and relocate staff to leased space downtown. The original plan, submitted to Congress in 2008, had been for a local developer to build the new office center and lease it back to GSA.

But the agency now says it makes more sense for GSA to develop and own a new building. Bond is not satisfied with the change and neither side appears willing to blink. "We are still waiting on a Plan B from the GSA," says Charles Chamberlayne, the senator's spokesman.

Johnson isn't the only nominee in limbo. Senators have placed holds on Obama's picks to serve on the National Labor Relations Board, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Labor Department's solicitor of labor. Holds on several other nominees were lifted just before the chamber's December recess.

The delays have gotten under the Senate leadership's skin. "President Obama has nominated very talented people to fill important roles within his administration," says Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The Senate has the responsibility to make sure that we move these nominations along in a reasonable period of time. When these positions are left open because of stalled nominations, it leaves our government vulnerable and less prepared to deal with the daily challenges that we face."

Ironically, media reports indicate Reid was the first senator to place a hold on Johnson's nomination to ensure GSA would not discourage federal employees from attending conferences in Las Vegas. He reportedly lifted the hold shortly thereafter.

While GSA has been tight-lipped about Johnson's nomination and the Kansas City dispute, the absence of a permanent political leader has begun to take its toll on operations and staff morale, according to Lurita A. Doan, the agency's most recent Senate-approved administrator. Doan now is a commentator for Federal News Radio.

"Without the Senate-confirmed leader at the top, focusing resources, leadership and attention on urgent problems and emerging opportunities often becomes difficult," says Doan, who was forced out of the job in April 2008 after butting heads with lawmakers and the Bush White House. "Too often, well-meaning career employees focus energies on internal, project-centric activity, which may or may not reflect the administration's priorities."

Johnson's hold has had ripple effects. Paul Prouty, an assistant regional administrator with GSA's Public Buildings Service in the Rocky Mountain Region, served as acting administrator from February 2009 until December. Shortly before Christmas, Prouty resigned, opting to return home to Denver to spend time with his family. The White House designated Stephen Leeds, who served as a senior counselor to Prouty, as the new acting administrator-GSA's fourth place-holder chief since Doan's departure 20 months ago. And in January, Danielle Germain resigned as chief of staff, citing the long delay in Johnson's confirmation.

Without a political leader at GSA several key initiatives, including construction at ports of entry nationwide, have stalled and Congress has directed agency funds to low-priority projects, according to Doan. "A strong leader needs to be willing to push back and have the courage to say no when excessive political pressure is applied," she says. "Saying no does not make a leader popular, and often gets the leader in hot water. But a willingness to do what is right for the nation, and a willingness to put the country first, despite public criticism is, I think, a core requirement of the job."

The Senate hold is a unique feature of the U.S. legislative system that is not written in any congressional rule book, says Sarah Binder, a political science professor at The George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. When senators place holds on nominees or legislation they generally are sending a signal that they plan to object to all routine business-from post office dedications to spending bills-until the majority leader respects their wishes. Since the chamber relies on unanimous consent to conduct its operations, holds typically are honored, Binder says.

Although the majority leader can break a hold with 60 votes, the process can be time-consuming and angers the member who originally placed the hold. "It's hostage-taking and it leaves an agency without a head," Binder says.

The process also is anything but transparent. There is no database of Senate holds, and public disclosures often come through the media. "Given that there are holds that some senators will own up to and which then do not appear on the [Senate] calendars, there is no systematic way to monitor the use of these senatorial courtesies," says Terry Sullivan, executive director of the White House Transition Project and an associate political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sullivan, who has studied the use of holds, says while most nominees eventually are seated, the tactic causes on average a one-month delay.

The 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act included a requirement that senators reveal when they are "intending to object to a proceeding," thereby eliminating all "secret holds." But the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington found that since the legislation was enacted, only two bills had holds placed on them in a manner compliant with the law. In December 2009, the group sent a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee demanding an investigation.

"Holds are very frustrating because agencies often feel stymied and afraid to act without a political appointee in place," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW.

Senators have applied holds for decades, but in recent years they have become a hardball political tactic to take jabs at the administration and further the agenda of the minority party, particularly when it lacks the votes to stop key legislation. Holds occasionally are based on disagreements about a nominee's ideology or qualifications. But more often they are used to extract concessions from the administration.

Take the case of Erroll Southers, whose nomination to head the Transportation Security Administration was blocked by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., over concerns that Southers would allow airport security screeners to organize, a pledge Obama made during the presidential campaign. On Jan. 20, Southers, withdrew his name, arguing that Republicans had politicized his appointment.

DeMint suggested that unionization would make TSA less nimble in responding to threats, and placed the hold to force the administration to reconsider its stance on collective bargaining. But since DeMint placed the hold, the agency has had some embarrassing snafus, including the posting of its security manual on the Web. "We need people in charge at TSA to get the confidence of agency employees and the support of the flying public," says Beth Moten, legislative and political director for the American Federation of Government Employees.

Southers says that the process became untenable. "It is clear that my nomination has become a lightning rod for those who have chosen to push a political agenda at the risk of the safety and security of the American people," he said in a written statement. "This partisan climate is unacceptable, and I refuse to allow myself to remain part of their dialogue."

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