By Rob Margetta, CQ Homeland Security

Mar 26, 2009

When Homeland Security deputy secretary nominee Jane Holl Lute takes the witness stand Thursday, she will be the first DHS official to dive into the confirmation process since Secretary Janet Napolitano was approved in January.

Considering how much pre-transition emphasis Congress and the department put on a quick confirmation process for DHS officials, some in the security world are wondering where the rest of the nominees are.

“They should be further along than they are,” said Rich Cooper, a principal at the security consulting firm Catalyst Partners LLC.

James Jay Carafano, senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed.

“I think they’ve gone from being really far ahead to being behind,” said Carafano, who nevertheless argues that the slow pace does not present a security threat.

But the lawmaker in charge of confirming DHS nominees, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., is less concerned about the DHS job search.

Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said “the senator would always prefer to see nominations move faster than they do. But the key nominee — the secretary — was confirmed on the first day of the new administration. And despite some delays, the pace of nominations has quickened in recent weeks. The committee formally received Lute’s nomination Feb. 25. It received three more nominations within a seven-day period. So, I think it is fair to say that the senator has no serious concerns about the pace of nominations.”

In late 2008, CQ tapped a wide assortment of lawmakers, former homeland officials and representatives from the private sector to create a list of the 10 most important DHS jobs that would need to be filled quickly after the presidential transition, aside from secretary and deputy. The Obama administration has named nominees to fill only two of those posts: Florida Emergency Division Director Craig Fugate for Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator and Acting Chief of the Justice Department Domestic Security Section John Morton for head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The administration has not taken action on the remaining eight positions:

• Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis

• Undersecretary for Management

• Undersecretary for National Protection and Programs Directorate

• Assistant Secretary for Cyber Security and Communications

• Assistant Secretary for Policy

• Customs and Border Protection Commissioner

• TSA Administrator

• Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection

First Time Around

DHS is keeping pace with other cabinet-level departments and is ahead of some this time around, but there is no way to compare its progress with the last presidential transition because this is the first the department has experienced.

Last year, an array of voices — from the DHS-sponsored Homeland Security Advisory Council to congressional committees that oversee the department — emphasized how the transition is a vulnerable time for the country and how getting DHS up to speed as quickly as possible was essential.

Now, Carafano and other experts emphasize that there’s no security threat posed by the lack of nominees.

“It’s not a big problem right now in DHS, because the last administration did a good job of putting out a lot of information and making sure everyone had the information they needed,” Carafano said.

He said the problems a slow nomination process could have for DHS are not in the present security realm, but in that of future policymaking.

“You’re very quickly going to have people in Congress who want to set priorities and want to set the agenda, and you can end up with a bunch of mandates that you don’t really want,” Carafano said.

Cooper pointed out that the positions in need of appointments are occupied on an acting basis, mostly by career DHS staff. In the case of the deputy secretary, Rand Beers, a veteran national security official who headed Obama’s review of DHS during the transition, has been holding the position

“There are also some very good people acting in their stead, doing the day-in, day-out business,” Cooper said. “They’re in good hands right now. But that being said, this is a new administration with a new agenda, and everyone is waiting to see what that agenda is. . . . That person’s acting. I want to hear what the new guy says. I want to hear what the new position is.”

‘Not Just Twiddling Its Thumbs’

P.J. Crowley, senior homeland security fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, disagreed with the notion that the components are in a holding pattern under acting leadership.

With initiatives such as the action directives Napolitano assigned to each agency upon taking office, the current staff at DHS has been analyzing the state of its components, laying the foundation for new leadership to take over.

“More is being done than just a caretaker role,” he said. “DHS is not just twiddling its thumbs, and that’s a credit to the civilian staffs that have been put in place. You always want to see the new team in yesterday, but I don’t think so far that the department’s performance has suffered.”

The primary factor sources cited for slowing DHS and other nominations is the Obama administration’s confirmation experiences thus far, such as former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle’s tax problems that forced him to drop out of the running for Health and Human Services secretary.

“The process has slowed down a bit,” Crowley said. “The While House, for understandable reasons, given the Daschle case and others, is under pressure.”

Cooper said the confirmation process has become onerous enough that some qualified applicants simply do not want to go through it to take a job that pays much less than they could make in the private sector.

“The whole confirmation process is so prohibitive these days,” he said. “Why would you put yourself or your family through it?”

But he also said the Obama administration has added to its own burdens when it comes to finding nominees, with a hefty vetting process and new ethics rules that prohibit lobbyists from taking federal jobs in departments they once lobbied, and prohibit officials from lobbying for a year after leaving government service. Carafano said the rules might result in qualified people who have worked as lobbyists being passed over for jobs. Others looking to lobby someday in the future might not want to take positions, he said.

With or without new ethics rules, the confirmation process has been a problem for a while, Crowley said.

“The challenge this administration has faced is the problem previous administrations have faced — the process is getting more difficult and more time-consuming to put a full team in place.”

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