Obama appointees may launch 2014 policy blitz
By: Darren Samuelsohn and Manu Raju
December 21, 2013 07:03 AM EST
The Senate may be drenched in dysfunction, but it still just gave President Barack Obama a much-appreciated Christmas present: a whole bunch of freshly confirmed agency appointees.
Thanks to Harry Reid’s filibuster changes, a spate of Obama appointees are headed to many of the vital departments involved in implementing the regulations, policy and executive functions that Congress won’t be touching next year — and they won’t have to worry about Senate Republicans anymore.
New people headed into their jobs for the new year will handle everything from Middle East diplomacy to immigration, taxes, homeland security, housing and military sexual assault. With Congress unlikely to move much of the president’s domestic agenda, the appointees will play a big part in Obama’s 2014 executive and regulatory actions aimed at helping him build out a domestic and foreign policy legacy.
And that has Republicans worried that Obama will circumvent Congress and allow his new choices to be essentially unaccountable to Capitol Hill now that the GOP has even less leverage during the confirmation process.
“You can’t hold anybody accountable,” an angry Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said.
Added Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn: “There’s not a lot that’s going to happen next year, and they realize the Senate is likely to flip. So the way they empower the president to pursue his agenda is by jamming a bunch of these nominees through as the head of the various regulatory bodies and the judiciary.”
Wrapping up business for the year Friday, the Senate easily confirmed John Koskinen to head the Internal Revenue Service and installed a new deputy administrator at the Department of Homeland Security. Janet Yellen, the nominee to lead the Federal Reserve, also cleared a key procedural hurdle and is expected to be confirmed in early January.
Since Reid invoked the “nuclear option” — to allow a majority of senators to break a filibuster, rather than a supermajority of 60 — Democrats have successfully confirmed nine Obama executive branch appointees, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, a new housing financing agency chief and senior leaders at the State and Defense departments. More than 235 pending Obama picks, including No. 2 deputies at the Interior, Treasury and Veterans Affairs departments, as well as judicial nominees, will now need to be renominated by the White House but confirmation is virtually ensured for most under the new filibuster rules.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) denied that the nuclear option was employed to help the administration gear up for a push on a more aggressive regulatory agenda, saying instead it was simply to fill up key government posts.
“We just looked at the key agencies where we had vacancies at the highest levels,” Durbin said. “If you’re going to run this government effectively, regulations or not, you have to fill them.”
“These are the people who make government go and make their bosses look good,” added Heather Hurlburt, senior adviser at the National Security Network.
On the White House’s end, several new aides are getting in place to handle what’s expected to be a heavy regulatory agenda. Phil Schiliro, the president’s first-term legislative guru, just moved back to Washington from New Mexico to spend the next year trying to fix the health care law’s implementation. John Podesta returns to the West Wing to handle the energy and climate change portfolio and more.
“John’s a great strategist,” Obama said Friday during his end-of-the-year press conference. “He’s as good as anybody on domestic policy and I think he’ll be a huge boost to us and give us more bandwidth to deal with more issues.”
One of Obama’s newest Cabinet members is Johnson, who faces big challenges at Homeland Security absent legislative action on immigration and cybersecurity. A former Pentagon general counsel during Obama’s first term who spearheaded the legal review of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, Johnson is seen as a straight shooter capable of managing one of the government’s biggest bureaucracies.
“He’s got a better chance whipping that outfit into shape than anybody who’s gone down there,” Arnold Punaro, a former Senate Armed Services Committee GOP staff director and retired Marine Corps major general, said in an interview.
Also in place at DHS is Alejandro Mayorkas, confirmed Friday after a contentious partisan debate centering around allegations he used improper influence in a visa program for foreign investors. Mayorkas most recently led the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, giving him insight if the administration needs to turn to executive action on immigration.
Johnson and Mayorkas also are in a tight spot. About 40 percent of the department’s top management jobs remain vacant or with civilian acting directors, raising questions about whether they have the resources to move controversial rules on immigration, aviation, rail and cargo security.
“I don’t see a lot moving,” said Denise Krepp, a former Obama appointee as chief counsel for the U.S. Maritime Administration. She predicted delays on new homeland security rules because of White House resistance and the vacancies. Johnson is “not going to be willing to move those regulations until those offices get filled. Even then, it’s going to be difficult.”
At Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State John Kerry will get some critical political help as he travels the world trying to build out Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
New faces on the job include Anne Patterson as an assistant secretary for near Eastern affairs, a job that covers everything from turmoil in Egypt to the Syrian civil war, Iran nuclear negotiations and Middle East peace talks; and Heather Higginbottom, a deputy secretary tasked with managing budget cuts and diplomatic security reforms in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks at the U.S. consulate in Libya.
“You need someone to run the store and that’s what Heather will do,” said former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “Given all the policy balls in the air, you need that additional leadership position to ensure that all the tough questions get leadership attention and that interagency coordination advances where necessary.”
Patterson’s arrival couldn’t come soon enough either. She’s the first Senate-confirmed person to her post in more than a year, filling “in the hot seat on how do you actually get results in a very complicated region in the world that had a very difficult period in 2013,” said Brian Katulis, a natural security and foreign policy expert at the Center for American Progress.
The Pentagon’s political ranks also are growing. Incoming Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has some tough battles ahead with the national guard and reserves, aging equipment and in addressing a lingering sexual assault scandal involving dozens of her branch’s recruiters and trainers. A former House Armed Services Committee aide and president of the technical and engineering sector at Science Applications International Corporation, James is “someone who has prepared all her life for this job,” Punaro said.
Koskinen also has his hands full as the IRS comes off a blistering year under fire for overzealous scrutiny of the tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax exemptions. But top challenges for Koskinen, a former Washington D.C. city administrator and senior White House Office of Management and Budget official, are Obamacare implementation and processing requests seeking eligibility for premium tax credits.
“Getting this right is important,” said Brian Haile, vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt. He said Koskinen will be dealing with “system and information limitations” and an insurance industry insisting on full enforcement otherwise it can undermine the patient pools.
Obama’s housing agenda also gets a fresh look with Mel Watt, the first regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac confirmed by Congress since August 2009. As head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Watt will be dealing with lawmakers trying to take the two companies off the government’s hand. He also has to decide whether to establish a debt forgiveness program for struggling homeowners.
After his Senate confirmation, Obama called Watt “the right person to protect Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day, and he’ll be the right regulator to make sure the kind of crisis we just went through never happens again.”
In October, Republicans blocked Watt’s confirmation, arguing that Obama was picking a politician over a housing expert to lead the agency. But after the change in filibuster rules, Democrats pushed the 11-term North Carolina congressman’s confirmation through on a mostly party-line vote in December.
“The change in filibuster rules has in my opinion a huge impact on the ability of the president to essentially move forward on his nominees —and to insulate the nominees from political pressure from the Senate with regard to how they will conduct themselves on future policies,” said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), top Republican on the Banking Committee, speaking of the Watt nomination.
But supporters counter that Watt’s arrival will be critical in putting Obama’s economic policies into place. “This bodes well for low-income people in the U.S. who are having housing issues,” said Sheila Crowley, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“I think Mel Watt will have not only more confidence, but with the confirmation, the legitimacy to make more critical decisions,” added Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a senior member of the Banking Committee.