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A ‘Swiss Cheese’ Government Full of Holes?

February 16, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton’s appointment headaches are far from over: There still are hundreds of top-level positions waiting to be filled.

Clinton aides once hoped the new president would have 200-300 appointments ready to go within a week of Inauguration Day. One month after taking office, about 30 nominees have been announced and another 100 likely appointees are undergoing background checks.

That’s not to say Clinton’s situation is unique.

A report by congressional Democrats issued seven months into President Bush’s term found that 60 percent of the top 400 jobs had not been filled.

Bush was presiding over a ″Swiss cheese″ government, the House Democratic Study Group reported, with many portions flying on ″automatic pilot.″

Chase Untermeyer, who handled personnel for the Bush administration in its opening days, said Clinton’s pace is just the latest evidence of how difficult it is to make 650 or more top-level appointments in short order.

″It’s hard to make 650 hamburgers,″ he said. ″It’s hard to find 650 qualified people who also meet whatever political tests they’re making at the time.″

White House aides say the president is proceeding deliberatively to make sure he gets the right people.

″This is the equivalent of trying to fill IBM overnight, it’s a huge business,″ said spokesman Bob Boorstin. ″Obviously, it’s better to take time and do the right thing rather than rush them in and find out later they’re not competent.″

Besides, he added, ″We’re doing just as well as Bush or Reagan, in fact we’re doing better.″

With last week’s appointment of Janet Reno as attorney general, Clinton filled all Cabinet-level posts, assuming that Reno is confirmed by the Senate.

But the leadership ranks beneath many Cabinet secretaries are largely bare.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, no one has been nominated for any of 21 presidential appointments below Cabinet secretary.

At Agriculture, Secretary Mike Espy is holding off on department reorganization plans until he has top aides in place.

″I want to slow up just a bit and wait until the process has been completed for the naming of these undersecretaries and assistants and then work with them to change the operation,″ he said last week.

At Interior, career employees are filling in temporarily for the undersecretary and assistant secretaries. ″They understand that they’re there to keep the seat warm,″ said agency spokesman Robert Walker.

Overall, there are about 1,500 appointed positions spread throughout the government.

So who’s minding the store until they’re all filled?

Cabinet secretaries, that’s who, aided by a few Bush administration holdovers and a large cadre of career civil servants.

″That is the particular role of the career federal executive, to keep operations going at precisely times like this,″ said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

But career employees aren’t likely to propel the government forward on the bold course of change promised by Clinton.

James Pfiffner, a professor of government at George Mason University, said timely appointments are essential if a new president is to move ahead with his agenda in the important first year.

″It takes assistant (Cabinet) secretaries and people a bit further down to actually make concrete decisions for the career people to carry out,″ Pfiffner said. ″Career people are very hesitant to go out on a limb, even on decisions like buying a new computer system.″

Presidential scholars say another problem can arise when anxious Cabinet secretaries seize the initiative and push their own people to fill vacancies. Former presidents Nixon and Carter, for example, both were plagued by dissenters among top agency officials they had little hand in selecting.

″You wind up with people at the sub-Cabinet, who are the real workhorses of the administration, who owe their political loyalty to the Cabinet secretary rather than the president,″ said Untermeyer.

White House officials say the pace of presidential appointments should pick up now as candidates emerge from FBI background checks. Aides deny that any unusual delay was caused by adding questions about nominees’ hiring practices after two attorney general candidates were torpedoed because they had employed illegal aliens.

″It’s speeding up and we’ll have a lot of announcements coming out next week,″ spokesman George Stephanopoulos said last week.

At the other end of the pipeline, frustrated would-be appointees are anxiously wondering whether a move to Washington is in their future.

″It would be appropriate to tell some people they’re not being considered so they can get on with their lives,″ groused one potential nominee for a high-level position. ″I’m being asked, ’Do you really want to work for an administration that operates like this?‴

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