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US, a superpower sans manpower

world Updated: Mar 25, 2009 01:40 IST
Pramitpal Chaudhuri

The world is in crisis, but the superpower doesn’t have people to man the telephones. Over 60 days after its chief executive was inaugurated, the Barack Obama administration has filled in barely 5 per cent of even the roughly 1,000 government posts that require congressional confirmation.

Each new US administration, especially if a new political party comes to power, has to fill as many as 15,000 vacancies. Of these, about 1,100 are important enough to require the approval of the US Senate. The White House Transition Project describes 360 of them as core policy positions. According to the Washington Post’s online headcount, the number of Obama
appointments officially ensconced in office as of last week is 43. This includes seven George W. Bush holdovers.

An Obama foreign policy adviser said, “At this rate, the government will be lucky if it is fully up and running by May. It
could be as long as June.”

The most telling example is the treasury department — the US equivalent of the finance ministry. Wall Street may be laying off thousands, but its governmental counterpart is desperate to hire. Treasury secretary Tim Geithner is the sole confirmed official. None of his 17 deputies have even been announced, let alone confirmed. He has a shadow staff of about 50 people who cannot take decisions.

The Economist noted that the treasury website lists only Geithner on its rolls — it normally has over 120 names. The Transition Project, a nongovernmental group, says Obama is actually a little ahead of the first Bush administration in the nomination process.

Washington observers say another problem is Obama has demanded exceptionally high ethical standards from his appointments. For example, they must not have served as lobbyists or even consultants in the policy areas they will handle in the government. This rules out almost all Beltway policy experts who regularly circulate among government, private sector and academia. The collapse of Senator Tom Daschle’s cabinet nomination also made Obama hypersensitive to ethics.

“You have to be a saint to work in this government. Or a novice in your field,” said a lobbyist. “Ethics is the main reason,” says Ashley Wills, adviser to lobby firm WilmerHale, when asked about the snail’s pace of appointments. “Most folks have some lobbying in their background, have things they don’t want discovered, or don’t even realise they might have done something years ago that would be questioned during confirmation.”

Geithner is among those struggling to find qualified people. One of his first choices as a deputy, Annette Nazareth, recently withdrew her name. So has a candidate for undersecretary for international affairs, Caroline Atkinson. The US treasury is turning down requests to testify before the US Congress, citing lack of personnel. The British hosts of the upcoming G-20 summit had complained treasury was not replying to their messages.

The situation is aggravated by the nature of the US staffing process. Even though thousands of lower-level positions do not require Senate confirmation, they cannot be filled until the senior slots are done. And these slots must pass the Senate. “There are corridors of power in Washington manned only by old ladies knitting,” said one Obama adviser.