More than one-quarter of the top jobs at agencies involved in the war against terrorism are vacant, according to a new study from the Brookings Institution. Of the 164 top positions requiring Senate confirmation at agencies directly involved in the war on terrorism, 120 are occupied by confirmed Bush appointees or holdovers from the Clinton administration, according to the study, which was produced by Brookings' Presidential Appointee Initiative. But 44 jobs, including the positions of deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have yet to be filled. The study looked at political appointments in areas related to the war on terrorism, bioterrorism and homeland security. The Presidential Appointee Initiative has been tracking the top 505 Senate-confirmed positions in the Bush administration. Overall, about 60 percent of the government's top political jobs have been filled since January. "This is a governmentwide problem, and the longer it takes to get the President's team in place, the higher the toll it can take on national security," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the ranking member on the Governmental Affairs Committee. "This underscores the need for comprehensive reform throughout the presidential appointment process-vetting, nominating and confirming." G. Calvin Mackenzie, a visiting fellow at the Presidential Appointee Initiative, said the vacancies in agencies charged with fighting terrorism are cause for concern.
"We are 10 months into the Bush administration, and 30 percent of those positions are still empty. That's a problem," Mackenzie said. Other key positions that remain unfilled include undersecretary of the Air Force, undersecretary of the Army, assistant secretary for health at the Health and Human Services Department and director of the National Institutes of Health. Mackenzie said career federal employees are "holding down the fort" at many agencies right now. "Career civil servants know how to deal with common problems and can make sure the checks get cut, but they don't make important policy decisions," he said. "The way our government works, when we need to make policy decisions, we look to political appointees." Monte R. Belger, a career executive, has been acting as FAA deputy administrator since 1993, according to agency spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler. Belger, whose official title is associate administrator for air traffic services, has been acting deputy administrator for years and is "very experienced," Trexler said. Mackenzie said it is difficult for top leaders to establish long-term working relationships because of the current appointments process. "Those [acting employees] in the communication loop right now, may not be in a few weeks," he said. "Networking in government is really important." He said the government must either stop requiring Senate confirmation for some top positions or find a faster way to fill political appointments through the current system. The Sept. 11 attacks have brought a new urgency to fixing the appointments process, according to Mackenzie. "People responsible for managing agencies, like [FEMA Director] Joe Allbaugh . . . are working enormously long hours," he said. "The reason we have a deputy director of FEMA is to share that burden." "Situations like Sept. 11 put a stress on all of our systems," Mackenzie said. "Stress tests are the way you find out what doesn't work. We've known about the problem with the appointments process, and now, as we face a national emergency, we are finding out what the consequences are."