`Interim' label a common one in Washington

October 15, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- For now, the most powerful law enforcement official in the federal government is a 47-year-old lawyer little known outside Washington.

Or inside Washington, for that matter.

He is acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler, who is running the Justice Department until a new attorney general is confirmed by the Senate to replace Alberto R. Gonzales.

Keisler may be best known in Washington legal circles as a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society.

His No. 2 and No. 3 officials are also acting - as are more than a quarter of the department's 93 U.S. attorneys.

At the top of the Department of Homeland Security, there is an acting general counsel, acting under secretary for national protection and acting assistant secretary for strategic plans. At the Department of Health and Human Services, the $600 billion-a-year Medicare and Medicaid programs have had an acting administrator since last fall.

"You've got more vacancies now than a hotel in hurricane season," said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor and specialist in the federal bureaucracy. "In my 25 years of studying these issues, I've never seen a vacancy rate like this."

With 15 months left in office, President Bush has left whole agencies of the executive branch to be run largely by acting or interim appointees - in jobs normally filled by people confirmed by the Senate.

In many cases, there is no sign that the White House is trying to find nominees, suggesting that many important jobs will not be filled by Senate-confirmed officials for the 462 days, as of today, remaining in the Bush administration.

The White House insists that when vacancies have occurred in executive branch agencies, it has filled them with talented acting replacements, often with the same officials who have been nominated - but not confirmed - for those jobs by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"We have capable people in place to provide leadership," said Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman. "We encourage members of the Senate to confirm the nominees we've already sent to the Hill as soon as possible."

The president also has authority under the Constitution to make so-called recess appointments when the Senate is not in session - but that subjects the White House to criticism that it is trying to circumvent Senate confirmation.

The indefinite appointment of acting officials might have the same effect of circumventing congressional oversight.

Light said the problem with having so many acting senior government officials was obvious: "They just aren't as effective as Senate-confirmed appointees," he said. "They just don't have the standing in their agencies. Acting people are very shy about making decisions."

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