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Staffing Shortages Fuel Agency Failures

By Ed O'Keefe

Swap out a few names in today's Post article about increasing caseloads and declining morale at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and you could be telling the story of any of several government outfits suffering from a lack of resources that has compromised its ability to fulfill the agency's mission.

Colleague Steve Vogel reports that charges of private sector job bias filed with the EEOC climbed 15.2 percent last year, while staffing levels have decreased by more than 700 employees since 2000.

But EEOC is not alone. There are two, rather high-profile, examples where a resource issue may have contributed to an agency's inability to stop a situation that eventually spilled out into the open.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is under fire for failing to catch the $50 billion fraud allegedly orchestrated by Bernard L. Madoff, and some at the organization blame staffing shortages for the lack of adequate oversight.

"The amount of resources available to the SEC has not kept pace with the rapid expansion in the securities market over the past few years," SEC director of enforcement Linda Thomsen recently told the Senate Banking Committee.

Lawmakers have openly questioned if SEC investigators overlooked questionable activities at the agency, but it seems a larger staff might have helped. SEC staffing numbers have fluctuated in recent years, and are down from 3,730 employees in 2004 to a proposed 3,567 in 2008.

Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have introduced legislation that would add 100 new SEC enforcement division employees to help address the lack of resources.

"The ongoing financial crisis is likely to expose more bad actors -- and our white-collar crime divisions are not equipped to root them out or prosecute them," Schumer said.

Meanwhile, at least eight people have died and more than 500 people have been sickened by a nationwide salmonella outbreak tied to peanut products processed in Georgia. The outbreak has exposed the complex web of agencies and regulations associated with food safety. The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service accounts for the nation's commercial meat, poultry and eggs, while the Food and Drug Administration keeps tabs on everything else. Both face serious resource shortages.

"Understaffing is an issue," said Stan Painter, with the American Federation of Government Employees' National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. FSIS inspectors must make daily visits to plants in their jurisdiction, with some visiting more than 20 each day. Painter said that some industry and government folks have scoffed at requests for more resources, seeming to suggest the inspectors "Go through the front door, wave at [plant employees] as you go through, and make your way out through the back door. . . . "That's not inspection," Painter said.

As has been widely reported, the FDA cannot possibly visit every food manufacturing plant, so it often contracts with state agencies to perform inspections. But in Georgia, state inspectors last year failed to test the plant tied to the national outbreak for salmonella.

"It's the responsibility of the industry to produce safe products," Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition recently told The Post. "The FDA is not in the plants on a continuous basis. We do rely on inspections to find problems when they exist." But since FDA is unable to visit plants on a continuous basis, how does it expect to find all problems?

(Side note: The FDA was recently flagged by the Government Accountability Office in a report on "high risk" agencies. The report focused on FDA's oversight of drugs and medical devices and found that while the scope of FDA's regulatory authority had expanded, its resources had not "increased in proportion to the growing demands placed on it," compromising the agency's ability to fulfill its mission.)

Bottom line: Several federal agencies and cabinet departments that have experienced staffing shortages and funding cuts now face questions about why they were unable to stop issues related to the health, safety and financial security of Americans. The answer at all of those agencies seems, in part, to be related to a lack of resources -- an answer unacceptable to some. But following eight years of an administration that cut the funding and responsibilities of many agencies and departments while focusing most of its attention on national security concerns, it's an answer Americans have to accept and a challenge the Obama administration eventually will have to confront.

By Ed O'Keefe  | February 3, 2009; 6:45 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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Thanks to the Republicans for 'Less government'. When they use that mantra that all the uneducated, and locksteppers out there listen to, this is what they want. No oversight while the store is looted. Ya think they care if you get sick and die? Ya think they care that Madoff ripped off billions? 'Less government'. Our health providers KILL people with the care they refuse to give. The drug companies KILL people with the unreachable prices. 'Less government'. No oversight. The words sound harsh, just don't say them and it is ok, the bottom line is all that matters.

Posted by: sesit | February 3, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

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