Job vacancies are fast becoming a singular threat to President Donald Trump’s administration, with a record number of openings that stretch from low-level appointments to the secretary’s office at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While civil servants have stepped up to fill gaps, their power and influence is limited — and many senior career government workers have quit or retired since Trump took office, taking institutional knowledge with them.
Max Stier, who tracks federal vacancies as head of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, likened the administration to a government run by substitute teachers.
“You might have a wonderful educator coming into the class for a day, or a week, or a couple of weeks,” he said. “But they get no respect.”
For millions of Americans, the consequences are real. Vacancies have stalled pay raises for thousands of federal workers. A mortgage rule to help home buyers has been stuck in limbo for more than a year. And the Internal Revenue Service is short bodies to push out regulations related to the new tax law, stymieing businesses.
Jonathan Keefover is feeling the pain. As a customer service specialist for the Social Security Administration, he was expecting a raise this past January after the Federal Salary Council approved pay increases for workers in Birmingham, Alabama.
The recommendation was approved in October 2016, before the election, and sent to the Office of Personnel Management for routine processing. But OPM was without a confirmed director until last month and never finished the paperwork. The salary council didn’t press the issue because it had stopped meeting until Trump named a chairman in December.
The pay raise, in short, fell through the cracks. And Keefover is still waiting for his extra $40 to $80 a month.
“I don’t know exactly who to blame it on, but it has to be leadership,” Keefover said. “We’re all just wondering why. What happened?”
It’s the first time OPM has failed to process a salary increase, said Jacque Simon, a council member and policy director of the AFGE employee union.
“The regulation just never got written,” she said. “The career staff were like, ‘We didn’t feel like we had authority to move ahead.’ If they’d had a boss telling them what to do, they would have done it.”
An OPM spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
Fifteen months into his term, Trump has sent fewer nominees to the Senate than his predecessors, and his musical-chairs management style has created openings even as he fills others.
High-baggage picks like Ronny Jackson, who withdrew from consideration to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday amid allegations of professional misconduct, have cost the president political capital and slowed the process of stocking the Cabinet. Senate Democrats are compounding the slowdown by holding even noncontroversial picks to the highest procedural standards — a point Trump and others in the administration often make.
“Democrats are obstructing good (hopefully great) people wanting to give up a big portion of their life to work for our Government,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “At this rate it would take 9 years for all approvals!”
Democrats are obstructing good (hopefully great) people wanting to give up a big portion of their life to work for our Government, hence, the American People. They are “slow walking” all of my nominations – hundreds of people. At this rate it would take 9 years for all approvals!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2018
At the highest levels of the federal food chain, Senate confirmations have been granted to fill less than half of open positions. Some nominees have been waiting in the wings for nearly a year. And nearly a third of those top presidential appointments have yet to be named, according to Partnership for Public Service data.
Then there’s turnover. Not counting his Cabinet, nearly a third of Trump’s most senior aides have quit or been fired. Including promotions and reassignments, nearly half of Trump’s A Team has turned over in his first 15 months, a level of churn unmatched in recent history, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.
A senior White House official said the turnover hasn’t hurt the volume or quality of the personnel pipeline, and blamed the slow pace of hiring on the background clearance process.
“Every administration has turnover,” the official said. “This administration, more than any previous administration, had folks come to government who hadn’t served before.”
But the staffing gaps have led to slowdowns, which has drawn attention in Congress.
Last week, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), unhappy with the Department of Housing and Urban Development decision to close two housing projects in her state, put a blanket hold on its nominees while she awaits a response to her questions about the move.
The hold leaves HUD’s three biggest divisions leaderless. The Federal Housing Administration has been without a confirmed commissioner since 2014. Public housing and policy shops are being run by career staffers.
And Ginnie Mae, which backs a third of the U.S. mortgage market, is without a president after Trump’s pick for the job, David Kittle, dropped out in November. He had waited more than nine months just to get through background and ethics checks.
“I just pulled my name. I wasn’t going to wait any longer,” Kittle said. “You may not have a full-time Ginnie president during Trump’s first term. You may not have a full-time FHA commissioner during Trump’s first term. You don’t have a fully functioning HUD.”
HUD Deputy Secretary Pam Patenaude downplayed the vacancies, telling a gathering of the Mortgage Bankers Association this week that the agency is “open for business.”
Her upbeat attitude contradicts the reality at HUD, which is coping with antiquated technology and a surge in risky lending. FHA’s mortgage system has suffered nearly 200 outages since March 2017, sometimes delaying loan processing for days. Ginnie Mae is grappling with a resurgence of risky lending practices similar to those that felled the housing market in 2008.
And the industry has been waiting since 2016 for the agency to finalize a widely endorsed rule to help condominium buyers.
Even Democrats are frustrated. David Stevens, head of the Mortgage Bankers Association and a former Obama official, has been working to get Senate approval for Brian Montgomery, Trump’s pick to lead FHA. In a rare show of unity, affordable housing advocates and Wall Street trade groups have aligned behind Montgomery, who cleared the Senate Banking Committee on an 18-5 vote in November.
It’s not just HUD. As of late April, the Central Intelligence Agency had only about one-third of their presidential appointees in place, according to Stier. At the Department of Education, two out of five appointments are open.
The administration has installed acting personnel in top jobs and detailed some appointees to open policymaking positions until nominees can be put in place.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is giving priority to Trump’s judicial picks, has moved more than 100 confirmations this year, but that’s barely dented the backlog of nominees-in-waiting. Last week, the Senate voted 55-43 to approve Carlos Muniz to the top legal job at the Department of Education. He had been waiting 316 days for confirmation.
“Logistically, to get everyone confirmed, it’s going to take years,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said. “Even at that rate, we’re not going to confirm everybody.”
And the longer jobs remain open, the harder they are to fill.
“Right after the glow of the election victory, it’s easy to hire people into your White House. But with every passing month, it gets trickier,” said Brookings fellow Kathryn Dunn Tenpas. “And why would you, as a Republican on the outside looking in, want to work for an entity that chews up and spits out its employees?”