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Arne Duncan Bringing in Key Players as ‘Senior Advisers’

By Alyson Klein — January 05, 2015 2 min read
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“Senior adviser” to the U.S. Department of Education. Get used to that title. It’s becoming very popular these days.

Robert Gordon, who played key roles at the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2013, was nominated as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy way back in May. But the Senate hasn’t given him the okay, so Gordon has been working as a “senior adviser” at the Education Department since September. He’s been doing many of the same things he’d be doing if he had been confirmed, in terms of helping steer the policy ship, sources say.

And John King will be leaving his role as the state chief in New York to take over what’s essentially the No. 2 position at the department, the deputy secretary, again as a senior advisor—without even being nominated by President Barack Obama.

What’s more, Ericka Miller, who has been nominated as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education, will be joining the department in an “acting” capacity and as (yup!) a “senior advisor” for policy and programs.

So is this some new strategy at 400 Maryland Ave. for filling top positions without having to deal with the difficult process of getting nominees through Congress? Getting Obama appointees confirmed by the Senate hasn’t always been a smooth process—and things aren’t likely to get much easier when the chamber flips to Republican control this month.

I asked the Education Department that question, and they referred me to the White House, which never responded.

But the more important question may be: Is just “acting” in a role, or serving as an adviser, without the fancy, official title going to be a huge problem for Gordon and King when it comes to getting things done? After all, the Obama administration has only two years left in office and a lot on its edu-plate.

It shouldn’t be a big deal, said Mike Smith, who served as under secretary during the Clinton administration, but also essentially (and unofficially) performed the deputy role at times because Congress never confirmed his nomination to the post.

“It won’t hamstring them at all. ... It didn’t hurt me at all,” Smith said. “I sat in that big office with my own bathroom and looked out at the Holiday Inn” across the street from the department. "[You’re] the deputy when [you’re] there,” he added.

And he said, “It’s too bad we don’t have a better-functioning process for getting people appointed.”

That’s apparently a bipartisan sentiment. Mike Petrilli, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President W. Bush and is now president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, had a similar take.

“There are simply too many positions at the U.S. Department of Education that require Congressional confirmation,” he wrote in an email. “Officials with little statutory authority should not need Senate confirmation. These age-old practices just make the bureaucracy even less effective than it already is.”