© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Lack Of Leaders Puts Strain On Homeland Security Department

Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano, seen here testifying on Capitol Hill in February, announced her retirement earlier this month. As many as 15 other posts at DHS are now vacant or soon will be.
Susan Walsh

Janet Napolitano's announcement that she'll be stepping down as Department of Homeland Security secretary after four years on the job leaves an opening at the top of the key Cabinet agency. But it's not the only job opening at Homeland Security.

Fifteen top posts at DHS, including secretary, are now vacant or soon will be. Many are being filled on a temporary basis, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle want the Obama administration to get busy filling those jobs, too.

It's one of the biggest agencies that we have, [and] it's got one of the lowest levels of morale on record ...

The DHS was formed some 11 years ago, after the Sept. 11 attacks. Congress threw together 22 different federal agencies, from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service. The forced merger resulted in a huge, and some would say unwieldy, bureaucracy charged with everything from patrolling the nation's borders to responding to severe storms.

None of those responsibilities is made any easier by the lack of permanent leaders in some key positions.

"Customs and border protection — the role of commissioner for that has been vacant [and] filled by acting people for ... nearly a year and a half," says Christian Beckner, deputy director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Institute.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis for DHS has also been vacant and filled by someone in an acting role for seven months, Beckner says, as well as the Office of Inspector General, which has been filled by somebody in an acting role since the beginning of 2011.

And there are many more, including the No. 2 post at the agency, deputy secretary. All in all, it's not a good situation, says Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee.

"The Obama administration needs to make it a priority," Chaffetz says. "It's one of the biggest agencies that we have, [and] it's got one of the lowest levels of morale on record based on the surveys. And when you have vacancies at the top, you have this vacuum that's unfulfilled, and there is a total lack of leadership."

On this there is rare bipartisan agreement.

"It is a bad situation," says Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who chairs the Senate homeland security committee. "I call it executive branch Swiss cheese. And it's not that the people in these acting positions are inept or bad people, but there's a special stature that comes by Senate confirmation."

It's not only the stature, and more importantly the authority, that comes with having a Senate-confirmed leader in charge; Beckner says the vacancies and temporary leaders have a greater effect behind the front-line operations at the department.

"What it does impede is the ability of anticipating what the next challenges are, and making the key policy and operational decisions about where they should be investing for the future, [and] what policies should be put forward," he says.

According to surveys by the Partnership for Public Service, Homeland Security ranks at the bottom of its list of the best places to work.

The president of the nonprofit group, Max Stier, says that among other things, employees don't feel promotions at the department are based on merit.

"We should want and expect an employee group that is at least as good, at least as engaged, as what you'd find in the private sector," Stier says. "What the employees of [DHS] are telling the public, Congress and the president is that the agency isn't giving them what they need to succeed in their jobs, and that's a real problem."

Unlike elsewhere in the government, the vacancies at Homeland Security are not due to Senate roadblocks. Many of the posts don't require Senate confirmation. And while President Obama is working on a list of possible replacements for Napolitano, Carper says the administration needs to get working on filling the other vacant posts as well.

"We're ... months past the last election, and the administration has to bear down, [and] they just need to crank it up," he says.

Carper's committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing on the one nomination that has been submitted, that of Alejandro Mayorkas, to become deputy secretary. But if Mayorkas is confirmed, there will be a vacancy at his old job, as head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.