October 6, 2017 / 11:03 AM / a year ago

Help wanted: Staff shortages under Trump slow policy changes

    By David Shepardson
    WASHINGTON, Oct 6 (Reuters) - Hundreds of government
employees file in and out of the U.S. agency for auto safety in
Washington every working day, investigating potentially
dangerous vehicles and managing a $900 million annual budget.
    But an administrator is not among them - nobody has been
nominated to the top job since President Donald Trump took
    Also missing from the roughly 550 people on the payroll of
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA,
are a permanent chief counsel, director for government affairs,
chief financial officer and enforcement chief.
    While a deputy administrator was appointed last week, slow
progress in bringing in senior politically appointed officials
has nearly frozen key decision-making at the agency, according
to five former NHTSA officials, consumer groups, lawmakers and
some business leaders.
    They said that without leadership in place NHTSA has either
pushed back or failed to act on rules setting new standards for
improving how buses fare in rollover crashes, a system to remind
passengers in rear seats to wear seat belts, and new tire
    Eight months into Trump’s presidency, senior positions in
many government agencies across Washington remain vacant,
including roles at the State Department, the Department of
Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and throughout the
Transportation Department that oversees NHTSA. 
    Some of the vacancies are the result of Trump's efforts to
slim down the federal bureaucracy. Others are simply waiting to
be filled. 
    The White House blames Democrats for dragging out the
confirmation process for its nominees, and says vetting picks
has been more complicated than usual because many come from the
business world rather than government.
    While many companies applaud Trump's moves to roll back
federal bureaucracy, some also complain that delays in bringing
aboard political appointees is hindering government decisions
that could impact business. 
    The frustration extends to some U.S. diplomats,
private-sector lawyers and others who regularly deal with
government agencies, according to interviews.
    'IN A STALL'
    In September, the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association urged
Trump in a letter to accelerate his efforts to nominate a NHTSA
administrator so the agency can comply with a 2015 road safety
law passed by Congress.
    The law ordered NHTSA to write regulations setting minimum
tire standards for fuel efficiency and traction in wet
conditions and create an online database for consumers to check
for tire recalls.
    U.S. manufacturers and consumer groups support the
regulations, drawn up in response to vehicle deaths linked to
faulty tires, because they will raise standards and make the
U.S. market less accessible to poorly made versions.
    "We don’t want the U.S. to be kind of the dumping group for
the really low technology because there isn’t a standard to
meet," said Dan Zielinski, the association’s senior vice
    Two former NHTSA leaders and consumer groups say the agency
is also moving slowly on other regulatory issues, such as
improving side impact standards.
    "This agency is in a stall ... They are not going to do very
much without political leadership," said Joan Claybrook, a
former NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter and a
prominent consumer advocate.
    A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on NHTSA but
said "capable and professional staff" are filling essential
positions throughout the government on an acting basis until
confirmations go through.
    Leadership shortages extend beyond the NHTSA. The White
House had by Oct. 4 nominated 387 political appointees for
civilian positions in the executive branch and 160 have been
confirmed by the U.S. Senate, according to the non-partisan
Partnership for Public Service.
    Both numbers were well below those in the first eight months
under at least the last four presidents. In the same period of
Barack Obama’s presidency, 497 candidates were nominated and 337
    One senior administration official said it aims to have all
top positions - those at the level of assistant secretary and
above - nominated by year's end.
    Still, some political appointee jobs are expected to stay
empty, the White House spokeswoman said. "The federal government
has grown unrestrained for decades because politicians have been
too afraid to ‘drain the swamp'," she said.
    Follow Trump's impact on energy, environment, healthcare,
immigration and the economy at The Trump Effect www.reuters.com/trump-effect

    In many cases, dire warnings from opponents that Trump's
delays in putting forward political nominations for approval
would cause chaos have proven overblown.  
    But there are examples of government slowing down because
mid-level employees do not have the authority or are unwilling
to make decisions.
    At the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States
(CFIUS), which analyzes proposed transactions to ensure they do
not harm national security, private-sector lawyers complain of
slow decisions on big deals.
    "There is an unwillingness for the staff people to make a
decision," said Michael Gershberg, a trade and investment
attorney with Fried Frank. 
    A lobbyist who works on CFIUS deals said some companies have
had to refile proposals because CFIUS failed to reach a decision
within 75 days. That drives up legal and financing fees and
creates uncertainty about the deal.    
    Deals that have been refiled include a bid by Jack Ma's Ant
Financial to buy MoneyGram         and Zhongwang USA's $2.33
billion bid for Aleris Corp          .
    The Senate last week confirmed Heath Tarbert, who is
expected to oversee CFIUS, as an assistant secretary of the
    At the State Department, only six of the top 40 jobs have
been filled, and no confirmed officials are in place to run
regional bureaus that handle foreign relations. Instead, they
are in the hands of career diplomats with limited authority.
    The United States does not have an ambassador in place in
such key allied countries as South Korea, Jordan, Qatar and
Saudi Arabia. 
    "We’re pretty much frozen in amber here,” one official said.
    A congressional aide said it was hard to determine the
precise impact of the vacancies.
    But he added that U.S. policy in the North Korea missiles
crisis would likely be helped by an ambassador in Seoul, a fully
empowered assistant secretary of state for East Asia and an
active special envoy for North Korea. 
    "That’s just one example in the region with the most
prominent national security crisis, and really one of the most
serious in a long time," he said.
    Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, testifying in
Congress on Sept. 26, addressed the slow pace of filling posts.
    "We’re behind the curve. We should be ahead of the curve.
And we’re doing all we can to catch up,” he said. “Our work is
getting done. It would be better done if we had those positions

 (Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Diane Bartz and
Warren Strobel; Editing by Kieran Murray and Paul Thomasch)
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