Too Many Vacant Offices

February 28, 1993

For a president who vowed during the election campaign t hit the ground running, Bill Clinton has followed a leisurely pace in filling key posts in his month-old administration.

Aside from the attorney general fiasco, his cabinet appointments went quickly enough. But the critical jobs are just below cabinet level -- the deputies, assistants and deputy assistants who wield tremendous day-to-day power in Washington. That is where the problem lies: President Clinton and his top aides are keeping a choke hold on those appointments.

Of the nearly 300 top-level jobs in cabinet departments, fewer than 10 percent have been filled. The problem is best illustrated by the sudden illness of Defense Secretary Les Aspin. He is the only Clinton appointee in the Pentagon. A couple of people he expects the president to appoint as key aides are floating around the E ring , but they have no real power. With Mr. Aspin still recuperating, there is little or no effective civilian supervision of the nation's military forces. They are in the hands of the uniformed service chiefs, who are not all that happy with their new commander in chief.

The problem appears to be the White House's preoccupation with qualifications of potential nominees which have little to do with their abilities. Mr. Clinton's pledges of diversity in his administration are admirable and overdue. There should be an ample number of minorities, women and officials from all walks of life and sections of the country. But in tightly controlling the nomination process, the White House is proving to be a bottleneck. With all the other pressing decisions Mr. Clinton and his closest advisers must make, they can't keep the nomination process moving quickly enough.

Politically savvy Washingtonians, including some close to Mr. Clinton, understand the need to check every policy-making appointment carefully, especially those made formally by the president. It is generally believed that Jimmy Carter's delegation of these appointments to his cabinet secretaries created bureaucratic fiefdoms with agendas different from his own. But an administration beset by an economy reviving only slowly and several critical foreign policy issues demanding immediate attention has to keep its priorities clearly in mind. Getting key posts filled promptly is critical.

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