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In Roll Call (9/29): Patrick Roberts and Matthew Dull, “Is Obama using his appointment power effectively?”


After Hurricane Katrina, some members of Congress questioned the qualifications of the leadership of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs concluded that the agency’s leader had “lacked the leadership skills that were needed for his critical position.”

In response to these concerns, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 requires that the FEMA Administrator, among other agency leaders, have professional qualifications in his or her field. The Administrator “is to be appointed from among individuals who have…a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management and homeland security; and…not less than 5 years of executive leadership and management experience in the public or private sector.”

President Bush disputed Congress’ authority to mandate minimum qualifications in the Post-Katrina Act, and the limits of congressional authority have not been agreed upon. A Congress and a new president of the same party are unlikely to have public disagreements that force politicians or the courts to spell out the limits of congressional and executive authority over appointee qualifications. As a presidential candidate, Barak Obama implied support for hiring a FEMA administrator and other agency leaders with experience in their field.

A few other positions have congressionally-mandated minimum qualifications. The appointee to the position of Chief Medical Office “shall possess a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of medicine and public health.” (This was part of Post-Katrina reform).

The Director of the Institute for Education Sciences in the Department of Education “… shall be selected from individuals who are highly qualified authorities in the fields of scientifically valid research, statistics, or evaluation in education, as well as management within such areas, and have a demonstrated capacity for sustained productivity and leadership in these areas.” These minimum qualifications were part of a 2002 education reform bill.

The increasing adoption of minimum qualifications in law leads to two questions, one political and one theoretical.

Politically, will a President Obama and future Congresses set a precedent by agreeing to adopt minimum qualifications into law?

Theoretically, or given our understanding of how presidents, Congresses and agencies interact in many different situations, why would presidents want to appoint agency leaders with weak qualifications who are in danger of being poor performers? Do the campaign donations or political connections of any single individual matter so much that the person is likely to secure an appointment no matter the risk of being a poor performer?

House Democrats and media reports have alleged that critical vacancies in Department of Homeland Security leadership threatens US security, especially during the presidential transition. A June 2, 2007 article in National Journal claimed that few career civil servants had been promoted to upper management in the DHS and thus the department was run largely by appointees whose positions were either vacant or who would be replaced in a new administration. The article echoed the conclusion of a July 2007 House report that as many as 24 percent of top positions in the department were vacant, ensuring difficulties in continuing critical homeland security operations during a transition to a new administration.

How is the Bush administration doing in filling DHS positions? Not bad, according to an analysis of presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed (PAS) positions. Read the rest of this entry »