Rule of Law

Vacancies have hindered the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus

As President Trump tries to defend his sluggish response to the coronavirus pandemic, 18 nongovernmental organizations are pressing against agency vacancies that can hinder federal action.

“We fear that the leadership vacuum in several federal agencies is weakening the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic,” the organizations said in a letter to the Republican and Democratic leadership of 14 Senate committees.

“The nation needs highly-effective federal agencies especially at this time of crisis,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, we continue to witness a worsening, widespread vacancy issue across the federal government where key offices are without Senate confirmed leadership, sometimes for years on end, to the detriment of the agencies’ functioning.”

The lack of appointed agency leadership has been a long-standing problem in the Trump administration, but not one that bothers him. He prefers having acting officials instead of those who require Senate confirmation.

“I like acting because I can move so quickly,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last year. “It gives me more flexibility.”

That’s a problem for several reasons, but during this covid-19 pandemic there are “no people in some of these key positions that are tasked with responding to what’s going on, at least certainly not permanently confirmed appointees with the power to speak up and do something,” said Peter Jenkins, senior counsel of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the organization that led the drafting of the letter.

Sign up for our Coronavirus Updates newsletter to track the outbreak. All stories linked in the newsletter are free to access.

As of Monday morning, Trump had no nominees for 150 of 749 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, according to a Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service appointments tracker. In the Department of Health and Human Services, which is a crucial player in the coronavirus fight, 22 percent of key positions do not have a confirmed appointee.

At the Department of Homeland Security, the secretary, deputy secretary and two undersecretary positions are without confirmed leaders, according to the Partnership for Public Service and the department. At the Federal Emergency Management Agency within Homeland Security, the deputy administrator and the deputy administrator for resilience slots have no approved leaders. Three associate director jobs are not filled at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“What the Trump administration successfully set out to do over the last three years was to hollow out the so-called deep state and weaken several of these key agencies by not filling key positions,” Jenkins said. As a result, he said, second-stringers are in place “at a time we desperately need the A-team to be running the show.”

White House and Office of Management and Budget officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The 18 organizations pushed the senators to promptly and on a bipartisan basis:

●Ask the White House for qualified nominees who are key to fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

●Consider refusing cooperation “on key Administration requests before your committees unless the President offers qualified nominees for confirmation, or appoints proper ‘acting’ officials.”

●Request probes by agencies’ inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office into “agency failures to report vacancies to GAO as required.”

●Approve “legislation to close loopholes . . . and to streamline the confirmation process in order that future Administrations will not repeatedly avoid the safeguards provided by the Senate’s advice and consent process.”

A big lesson that should be learned from the pandemic is “we need to be investing in our government in order for it to be able to handle big problems,” said Max Stier, the Partnership for Public Service’s president and chief executive. That includes having confirmed leaders to deal with those problems.

Adding to the sports analogy, he likened the vacancies to missing players. Vacancies and rapid turnover at the top “makes it much harder to have that effective team,” he said, which is vital during an emergency like the present one.

In addition to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the organizations signing the letter to senators are the Project On Government Oversight, Whistleblowers of America, ACORN 8, Government Accountability Project, Jahn Research Group, National Federation of Federal Employees, Government Executives International, the Data-Driven Institute, Senior Executives Association, Professional Managers Association, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Union of Concerned Scientists, Constitutional Accountability Center, Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health and the Revolving Door Project.

Peace Corps update: Last month I wrote about the Peace Corps’ decision to dismiss its 7,300 volunteers as it recalled them from 61 countries because of the coronavirus pandemic. The agency deemed them ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits, because their positions “do not rise to the legal relationship of employer and employee and, therefore, are not considered in employment,” according to the agency.

After that, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and a bipartisan group of colleagues wrote a letter urging Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to allow unemployment benefits for the volunteers and those in AmeriCorps under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which is part of a $2 trillion covid-19 relief measure that is now law.

The good news, among nonstop bad news, is that Scalia agreed, according to Van Hollen.

“For decades, Peace Corps volunteers have served our country overseas — promoting democracy, literacy, development and American good will across the globe,” he said in a statement to the Federal Insider. “Today, these men and women — thousands of whom have been recalled — deserve the same safety net provided to others at this moment of need. I’m glad to see the Department of Labor is heeding our calls.”