DHS’s leadership vacuum
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced July 12 that she will be leaving her post in September after four years to become chancellor of the 10-school University of California system.
In reporting the news for our online audience, I noted that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been without a permanent commissioner for 18 months, ever since Alan Bersin’s recess appointment expired. We also reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton was resigning in July to take a position with Capital One Bank.
In reality, CBP has not had a confirmed leader since the Bush administration because President Obama had to use a legislative loophole to temporarily install Bersin when it became clear the Senate Finance Committee was not going to move his nomination to the floor for a vote because of concerns about his handling of immigration paperwork for domestic workers he once hired.
Career CBP and Border Patrol official David Aguilar moved up to be acting commissioner at the start of 2012, but he retired in April, and was replaced by another civil service official — Deputy Commissioner Thomas Winkowski.
Both men have done well to keep CBP functioning smoothly and advancing initiatives in the pipeline, such as the Centers of Excellence and Expertise, but it’s never good when an agency lacks permanent political leaders selected by the White House. That’s because interim officials feel they don’t have the necessary clout on Capitol Hill or within the administration to propose new policy directions or make big changes. Also, rank-and-file workers are apt to hold back implementing any changes knowing an interim chief won’t be around long term.
How Congress expects to pass a contentious immigration reform bill heavy on beefing up security along the southern border without having a permanent head of the agency responsible for implementing the new law is anyone’s guess.
President Obama must now select a new DHS secretary. It will take several weeks or months for someone to be selected and confirmed by the Senate. The White House will probably wait to nominate a new CBP commissioner until the top spot at DHS is filled so the new secretary can have input into the selection.
So, come September, DHS will be missing permanent officials in three of its top leadership positions. And, thanks to an excellent report by the Associated Press, the leadership vacuum doesn’t stop there.
One-third of the 45 chiefs of key agencies and divisions have been filled with acting officials or remained vacant for months, according to the wire service.
DHS Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute left in April, whose job is being filled by Rand Beers. And Beers will likely take over the entire department while the Senate considers the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas for the No. 2 spot. But Mayorkas is moving over from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which will create an opening there.
DHS is also missing a permanent inspector general.
Leading any agency is a taxing job that requires long hours, but Homeland Security has unique responsibilities that require top officials to work virtually around the clock to protect Americans from harm. Napolitano also crisscrossed the world meeting with foreign counterparts to increase law enforcement collaboration with U.S. authorities and get agreement on global security standards for aviation and supply chain security, among others. With so many calamitous events happening on her watch — the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and early this year in Connecticut, Superstorm Sandy, western wildfires, the underwear bomber in Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf — it stands to reason that anyone would need a break.
But Napolitano isn’t really going to get one. She’s stepping into the politically charged arena of California higher education, where universities have experienced significant budget cuts, raised tuition and increased class sizes to deal with funding shortfalls that stakeholders worry are damaging UCal’s reputation for academic excellence.
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