Federal

Education Offices Empty As Nominations Drag

By Joetta L. Sack — April 18, 2001 6 min read
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When the Clinton administration tapped C. Kent McGuire to become the Department of Education’s next leader on research issues in 1997, he faced a tough choice: Should he quit his job and move his family to Washington, or just wait?

“You don’t want to be so presumptuous as to assume that just because you’ve been nominated, you’ll be confirmed,” Mr. McGuire recalled.

As that period of limbo stretched over the next 71/2 months, Mr. McGuire was confronted with a mountain of paperwork and background checks. Finally, the Senate allowed him to start his new federal job.

“At the end of the day, I was a number that got voted on, with 20 others, at 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “The most important thing that wasn’t said to me during that wait was that the job wasn’t important enough to enough people—it was OK to be left unfilled” for several months.

His long wait was typical, though, of a cumbersome and problem-filled process for appointing high-ranking officials to federal agencies, including the Education Department, according to researchers and former nominees.

That means even had President Bush had a slate of education appointees in his suit- coat pocket on Inauguration Day, it would have taken months before his department team was in place. And the president and his team are still working on that list.

Just six of the agency’s 16 top-ranking officials have been named, even 12 weeks after Mr. Bush took office. And as of last week, only Secretary of Education Rod Paige had been confirmed by the Senate.

In recent weeks, the administration has announced its intention to nominate a deputy secretary, an undersecretary, and assistant secretaries for elementary and secondary and vocational education. Earlier this month, it announced its plan to nominate Brian Jones, a San Francisco lawyer who worked in former Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration, to become the agency’s general counsel. Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for Mr. Paige, insists that the Education Department is up and running, and that it was a key player in the White House’s recent proposals for the fiscal 2002 budget and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization.

“We have been very active here since day one of the administration,” Ms. Kozberg said last week. “We feel this department has been very active and very engaged in the policymaking process.”

She said that the secretary and Mr. Bush had been “making steady progress” in finding people to serve, and were committed to finding well-qualified individuals who would work well as a team. Several dozen people have been hired on a temporary basis, pending approval of their FBI background checks, she added.

An Ever- Slower Process

In 1981, when President Reagan took office, it took an average of 30 days from the date of the nomination to confirmation. By 1999, the middle of President Clinton’s second term and the last year for which data are available, that had spread to 87 days, according to the Brookings Institution’s Presidential Appointee Initiative. And with the change in administration, there will be many more people to confirm.

“The Bush administration is having to fill thousands of positions, all of which are drawing on the same pool of people who conduct background checks,” said Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

The committee so far has not received paperwork on any of the Education Department nominees who will require Senate confirmation. But that’s not unusual, as most of the background work by the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not begin until the White House officially announces its intended nominee, Mr. Karpinski said. The confirmation process could be further delayed, Mr. Karpinski noted, because the Senate normally takes several spring and summer recesses.

In 1993, President Clinton’s choices for education secretary and deputy secretary were made in the first few days of his administration and quickly confirmed. But Mr. Clinton did not begin selecting assistant secretaries and other major officials until mid-April, and those appointments took at least a month to confirm—some not until after the Senate’s August recess, said Roger Garcia, a researcher with the Congressional Research Service.

While nominees wait for a Senate vote, they cannot work in the posts to which they’ve been named, although they may serve as consultants if they choose. Four of the current nominees plan to work part time as consultants, and Eugene W. Hickok, the nominee for undersecretary, is working full time as a “limited-term senior adviser,” Ms. Kozberg said.

Washington observers say the drawn-out process hurts the agency’s operations.

“The process takes way too long—you wouldn’t operate a company with senior management positions open for so long,” said Michael Cohen, a White House and Education Department adviser in the Clinton administration and later the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Lobbyists and other education group representatives note that, with no one leading the agency’s specialized offices in a permanent capacity, they have no one to go to with questions or concerns. Some say that in the current climate of uncertainty, the release of much-needed reports and regulations has been delayed.

For instance, state special education officials are awaiting regulations on Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which will detail how to treat infants and toddlers at risk of having disabilities.

The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, has been particularly critical of the increasingly slow pace of the appointments process in recent years. It has set up a “Confirmation Countdown” on its Web site to track Mr. Bush’s progress in naming nominees.

Last week, Brookings reported that President Bush had named 94 of the total 487 high- ranking nominees in all executive departments requiring Senate approval. Only 29 have been confirmed.

An Agonizing Wait

Paul C. Light, a senior adviser with Brookings, noted that it is an especially hard process for nominees living outside the Washington area. They must make decisions such as whether to sell their houses and change their children’s schools, and whether their spouses should quit their jobs to move.

“You’ve got to go and decide, when do I tell the school board I’m leaving?’” he said. “Obviously, when the White House makes the announcement, you’d better have told someone.”

Leslie T. Thornton, who was former Education Secretary Richard W. Riley’s chief of staff from 1993 to 2000, said many nominees felt uncomfortable coming to the agency before they were officially confirmed. Some, she said, chose not to work there in any capacity until the Senate had cleared their appointments.

“It’s really awkward,” said Ms. Thornton, who is now an attorney with a private law firm in Washington. “They can give senior officials advice, and they can listen, but they can’t do anything.”

Mr. Cohen recalled that even though very few nominees had been confirmed in the early days of the Clinton administration, the agency was still expected to quickly produce legislative language on the Goals 2000 program and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization.

He advises the new round of nominees not to get discouraged by the process.

“Despite the relatively painful nomination and confirmation process, those jobs are worth doing,” he said. “They’re important, you make a difference, and they’re once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Education Offices Empty As Nominations Drag

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