IRS scandal highlights leadership vacancies

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday hears from two men it could attempt to hold accountable for possible political discrimination carried out by the IRS: outgoing acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller and former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman.

Neither of them, however, will be of any help as the IRS attempts to right its ship and restore public trust in the agency. That job will -- for now -- fall to Daniel Werfel, the senior White House budget officer that President Obama has appointed to take over as the agency's new acting commissioner. Werfel begins his new job on Wednesday, and like Miller, he'll be acting without the confirmation of the Senate.

The federal government relies on thousands of politically-appointed officials, but a number of agencies -- like the IRS this year -- are left with temporary leaders without the imprimatur of the White House. From 1977 to 2005, top positions in Cabinet departments and executive agencies were vacant or filled with an acting official between 20 to 25 percent of the time, according to Anne Joseph O'Connell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. With time, the numbers are only getting worse, O'Connell told The Obama administration has been relatively slow to announce nominees, and the confirmation process has grown slower.

"Both the White House and the Senate need to move faster," she said. "We have a country to govern and few people to do it."

It's the president's constitutional right to appoint leaders in the executive branch, but as the government has grown in size, so have the number of presidential appointees. There are currently around 1,200, of which about 800 must get Senate confirmation.

Presidential appointees, explained James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University, are the people with real authority in the executive branch.

"They can hire people, fire people, they can commit funds, and build buildings," he explained. "If somebody is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, they have official authority to make policy in the executive branch. If Congress wants them to testify, they can really hold them over the coals."

By contrast, when career bureaucrats are tapped to serve as acting leaders (as Steven Miller was in the IRS), they're reticent to make those significant decisions. "It's difficult for them to assert much authority, and they don't want to stick their necks out too far, because their superior may come in and reverse it," Pfiffner said.

At the same time, career officials can possess a deep knowledge of their agency and potentially the management expertise needed to run it.

That's why when Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., wrote to outgoing acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank last month requesting she get the White House to fill the record number of vacancies in her agency, he also wrote, "I would also suggest that these positions might be better filled with career employees to ensure continuity of leadership as Administration change and to minimize vacancy durations."

The White House has gone for months, Wolf noted, without appointing anyone to lead several arms of the Commerce Department, including the Census Bureau, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As chair of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee in the House, Wolf told that all the vacancies have made it difficult for the Commerce Department to address issues like furloughing employees in the wake of the sequester. The administration, he said, has had more than enough time to appoint people.