Trump Can't Run the Government With Temps
(Bloomberg View) -- In at least one respect, Donald Trump's presidency is already historic: Never before has a president left so many senior jobs vacant for so long. If his goal is to downsize the bureaucracy -- not a terrible idea -- then he is going about it in a spectacularly wrongheaded way.
There are 624 senior appointed positions in the federal government that require confirmation by the Senate, a number that accounts for about 0.0001 percent of the workforce. For nearly 250 of those jobs, the White House hasn't yet nominated anyone at all. Of the 371 candidates Trump has named for key positions, 240 have been confirmed, along with 49 lower-level nominees, for a total of 289. (By comparison, his four predecessors all had at least 400 confirmed nominees at this point.)
Aside from being managerial malpractice, this negligence may be illegal: At least a dozen administration officials are currently serving in a temporary capacity, even though the administration hasn't nominated anyone for the job. That violates the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which bars the executive branch from filling jobs with acting officials for longer than 300 days without sending a nominee to the Senate. The administration has attempted to work around this rule by delegating authorities to different offices in the same agency -- but those moves may be subject to legal challenge, too.
Because duties performed by these acting officials are considered to have "no force or effect,” the administration risks jeopardizing some of its anti-regulatory priorities. Lawsuits brought under the Vacancies Act could halt, among other things, Trump's efforts to loosen Obama-era restrictions on methane emissions on public lands and the serving of flavored milk in public schools.
Trump has defended this delinquency by saying most of these jobs are “unnecessary.” But the majority of them were created by congressional statute -- which is why Congress needs to apply more pressure by giving the Vacancies Act more teeth. Banning acting officials from drawing a salary after 300 days, or requiring that vacant offices be filled by career civil servants after the deadline passes, might do the trick.
If the president is serious about streamlining the senior leadership of the executive branch -- and it has grown by 624 percent since 1961 -- he should work with Congress to identify which high-level jobs are no longer necessary. Any essential functions should be reassigned to other parts of the bureaucracy, in accordance with the law.
By all appearances, this administration has little interest in making the bureaucracy more responsive or efficient. Instead, the president seems intent on sabotaging the effectiveness of the federal government by refusing to fill his own branch’s upper ranks. Congress and the courts shouldn't let him get away with it.
--Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Michael Newman.
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