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Unfilled Or 'Acting' Positions In Federal Agencies Delay U.S. Response To Epidemic


At this moment, there is an acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, an acting homeland security secretary and an acting director of national intelligence, who also happens to be the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Acting officials, numerous vacancies throughout the executive branch - these have been hallmarks of the Trump presidency. Journalist Garrett Graff says they are also a big reason the administration has mounted a chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic. He is with us now. Hey there, Garrett.


KELLY: So I should add, that list I gave was actually incomplete; there is also an acting secretary of the Navy - a new acting secretary of the Navy, I'll clarify - who also happens to be the undersecretary of the Army. The head of ICE has been in an acting role so long at this point he can't even be referred to as acting anymore, so he is the, quote, "senior official performing the duties of the director." I mean, how many vacancies, how many actings are we talking about?

GRAFF: It is unprecedented in modern times, the depth and breadth of these acting appointments and vacancies across the U.S. government. At DHS, just one-third - 35% to be exact - of the top roles are actually filled with permanent officials.

KELLY: And I will note, the length of some of these vacancies, too - you mentioned homeland security, the Department of Homeland Security today marks one year exactly, if I'm not mistaken, that the top job there has gone unfilled. The deputy secretary job is also vacant and on and on.

GRAFF: Yeah. And both the deputy director and the director of national intelligence are both acting officials. And remember - these jobs, the director of national intelligence and the secretary of homeland security, were literally the jobs created after 9/11 to prevent the next 9/11. These were jobs created by the 9/11 Commission's report. And as we find ourselves, as the U.S. surgeon general has said, in our own 9/11 moment this week with the COVID-19 crisis, it's worth noting - and, I think, not unrelated - that those jobs have been vacant for as long as they have been.

KELLY: Well, why do you say it's unrelated? I mean, why is this a problem when it comes to this specific coronavirus crisis?

GRAFF: Well, so one thing is - you know, the Department of Homeland Security is the agency that is supposed to be protecting the homeland and responding to disasters. This is the agency - the department that oversees FEMA, which is the lead government agency dealing with the COVID response.

Actually, both of FEMA's deputy roles are unfilled, including the role that is supposed to oversee continuity of government. That is sort of the role meant to ensure that we have succession plans in place and plans in place in case we end up in a situation where our government leaders get sick, as Boris Johnson in the U.K. was in the ICU this week.

KELLY: That said, there is a White House Coronavirus Task Force that - more than one, in fact. They're doing daily briefings. They've done a long one this afternoon. They're people out there. They're visible. They're doing their jobs.

GRAFF: Yeah. But understanding why these vacancies are so toxic and harmful for government under - requires understanding a little bit about the bureaucracy, which is that these actings are generally filled by the deputies.

But in the government structure, the deputy is actually the person who is supposed to be running the organization day to day, running the operations, running the logistics, overseeing the personnel, while the secretaries or the directors are the ones who oversee the politics and the policy. And so these are people who sort of should have other full-time jobs that they are not doing, which means that none of these bureaucracies are running as smoothly or as quickly or as efficiently as they are supposed to be.

KELLY: It sounds as though your takeaway here is President Trump can - of course, cannot be held responsible for the appearance of the coronavirus, but he is responsible for the federal government's stumbles in fighting it. And as you see it, part of that is he doesn't have a full team to deal with it.

GRAFF: He doesn't have a full team. He doesn't have a team who are empowered in the way that Senate-confirmed officials are. These are not people who have been in these jobs very long. You know, you mentioned the undersecretary of the Army who's the new acting secretary of the Navy; he actually only started in that role two weeks ago.

KELLY: So now he's doing two brand-new jobs at once, which is remarkable in those services. Garrett Graff, he is a journalist and historian, and his article on this appears in Politico Magazine. Garrett, thank you.

GRAFF: Always a pleasure, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.