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Still No Commerce Chief -- Does It Matter?

By Ed O'Keefe

President Obama marks his first week in office with much of his cabinet in place, but he still needs to name a commerce secretary to replace Bill Richardson, who withdrew his name from consideration earlier this month.

The Commerce Department "is the government agency tasked with improving living standards for all Americans by promoting economic development and technological innovation," according to the White House Web site. It's an umbrella organization with no real unity between its 12 bureaus, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The White House would not comment when asked about the Commerce vacancy, but an administration official did note that career staffers serving in acting positions are currently running the department. Recent reports suggest Obama will tap Symantec CEO and board chairman John W. Thompson for the job.

“Every department needs leadership to succeed," said Lynn Jennings, interim president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government. “Without that commerce secretary there, it’s kind of like a rudderless ship."

Tom Murphy, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3810, agrees. His local represents Economic Development Administration employees, tasked with assisting communities experiencing high unemployment and other economic issues.

“Our employees, we know our jobs, we know the grant program, and we keep acting business as usual. However, EDA is run by an assistant secretary, who of course would report to the secretary of commerce," Murphy said.

High-level vacancies are nothing new and usually get filled quickly, but it can take much longer to fill lower-level positions. A recent Center for American Progress report on presidential appointments found that it took President Clinton an average of 457 days to fill deputy agency head positions and President George W. Bush an average of 422 days to fill even lower-level technical positions. Over the past five administrations, executive agency positions were vacant 25 percent of the time, mostly towards the beginning and end of presidencies.

“It’s a big deal, because think of all the secretaries at the starting gate," Jennings said. "Some of them are already there. Secretary Clinton’s there. Secretary Napolitano’s there. They’re all able to start leading, getting their staffs together and everything else, but there are other in the stall, and others somewhere else around the track. It just delays the president getting all of his initiatives started.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, sees no cause for concern. Her union represents employees of Commerce's Patent and Trademark Office.

"The Patent and Trademark Office operates fairly independently, on a day-to-day basis, from the secretary’s office," she said. "Given that the inauguration was less than a week ago, I do not have the impression that employees see the nomination as being overdue."

Overdue or not, what do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 27, 2009; 2:55 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Agencies and Departments, What Would You Do?, Workplace Issues  
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