Clinton White House minimizes effect vacancies have on administration

February 20, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Earlier this month, in an event that received little attention in the United States, 15,000 angry Sikhs burned President Clinton in effigy and then marched menacingly toward the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

The episode, which began with some innocuous-sounding statements on East Asia by a State Department official, ended with the demonstrators being sprayed with high-pressure hoses, tear-gassed and beaten with metal-tipped sticks until they ran away.

But those who have spent time in India, including some prominent Democrats, said the situation could have been avoided if the president had bothered during his first year in office to appoint an ambassador to the world's second most populous nation.

"What's the matter with us?" asked an irritated Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who was once ambassador to India.

It's a question a lot of Democrats are asking when they consider the stubbornly slow pace of Mr. Clinton's appointments.

Upon Mr. Clinton's arrival 13 months ago, Republicans had occupied the White House for 20 of the past 24 years. Democrats celebrated the chance to appoint their people to executive branch patronage jobs that help give an administration its ideological flavor.

But this president is having unusual difficulty stocking the administration with fellow Democrats, and it doesn't take a mob of Sikhs to show that it is hurting his effectiveness.

"These are people who have to do everything from defending the administration's budget on Capitol Hill to making important foreign policy decisions that affect America's position in the world," said James Pfiffner, a George Mason University professor and authority on presidential appointments. "There's no question that not having his own people in those positions is hampering Clinton."

White House officials have been insisting that they aren't too far behind the pace of Ronald Reagan, who presided over the last comparable change of administrations. They say that after a year in office, Mr. Clinton had made 673 of the 1,000 appointments requiring Senate confirmation, only seven fewer than President Reagan. But Dr. Pfiffner's analysis shows that only 499 of Mr. Clinton's nominees had been confirmed -- far below the record of Mr. Reagan or Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter had 637 appointees confirmed; Mr. Reagan had 662.

The reasons, according to both administration critics and defenders, vary:

Certainly, stringent ethical requirements and lengthy FBI background checks make the process more cumbersome. So did the intense personal involvement in the selection process -- for the first six months at least -- of Mr. Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not only was there was a huge pent-up pool of ambitious Democrats who wanted White House jobs, but Mr. and Mrs. Clinton each had an impressive list of personal friends who wanted jobs.

The Clintons also issued edicts about racial and gender "diversity" in the appointments that particularly slowed jobs in agencies such as the Pentagon, where many obvious candidates were white and male.

White House officials minimize the importance of these problems.

"If you look at the progress the president is having getting the country on track, these vacancies have little impact in his ability to get the work done," said deputy press secretary Ginny Terzano.

Others outside the White House -- including Clinton administration allies -- point, however, to a series of delayed, botched or unreached decisions that have frustrated his fellow Democrats, liberal interest groups that supported him during the campaign -- and even foreign nations.

4( Among those in the executive branch:

EPA

Last year, the day before Earth Day, Mr. Clinton gave a speech promising to produce a U.S. action plan on global warming. Officials for various agencies were ordered to write the plan over the summer.

But problems arose immediately.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, there was no assistant administrator for air quality. At the Department of Transportation, there was no administrator of National Highway Traffic Safety -- the agency that oversees auto mile-per-gallon requirements. At the Department of Energy, there was no assistant secretary of conservation and renewables. All of these people, had they been in place, would have been responsible for making sure the plan was what the Clinton White House wanted.

Instead, the Transportation input was largely from holdovers from the Bush administration; at Energy, it was bumped to another sub-agency with less expertise in clean air matters; and at EPA, the person who had most day-to-day responsibility was a former aide to Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnston, a staunch ally of the oil industry.

On Oct. 19, the plan was finished.

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