by Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services haven’t had a Senate-confirmed administrator since 2006. The Federal Labor Relations Authority has had only a single member since January and can’t issue decisions. And the Election Assistance Commission hasn’t had any commissioners at all since 2011.
All presidential administrations have vacancies. But an analysis of appointments data by ProPublica shows that President Obama hasn’t kept up with his predecessors in filling them. A greater share of presidentially appointed positions that require Senate confirmation were sitting vacant at the end of Obama’s first term than at the end of Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s first terms.
At least 68 of the positions remain vacant, including 43 that have been vacant for more than a year.
The vacancies have been spread across dozens of different departments and agencies, with some hit harder than others. At the Department of the Interior, for instance, six of its 18 appointed positions were vacant at the end of Obama’s first term. The department had three vacancies midway through Clinton’s presidency and only one midway through Bush’s.
The lack of appointed leaders can create problems. Too many vacancies can put agencies “in stand-down, waiting for policymakers to show up,” said Terry Sullivan, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina who has studied appointments.
Acting heads of agencies “don’t make any big decisions,” said Cal Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College who has studied appointments since the 1970s. “Your authority is not going to be recognized in the same way a Senate-confirmed appointee is going to be recognized.”
Overall, more than 13 percent of presidentially appointed positions hadn’t been filled at the end of Obama’s first term, compared with around 10 percent for Bush and 11 percent for Clinton. While the uptick compared with the Bush administration may sound small, it translates into dozens more vacant positions.
The data comes from the Plum Book, a directory of federal appointees released every four years. (We started looking at the data after it was flagged by the New York Times’ Derek Willis.) The data doesn’t include the vast majority of judicial appointments, for which vacancies have also risen under Obama.
The White House’s Office of Presidential Personnel didn’t respond to a request for comment.
So who’s to blame for the unfilled positions?
“I think President Obama bears some responsibility and the Senate bears some responsibility,” said Anne Joseph O’Connell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research shows that Obama filled fewer positions in departments and executive agencies in his first year in the White House than any of the last four presidents.
Obama has been slower to make appointments, she said, and the Senate slower to confirm them.
Republicans have increasingly created roadblocks for nominees.
For instance, Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s nominees to the Election Assistance Commission — an agency charged with aiding voting that House Republicans voted to get rid of in 2011.