A combination of executive and congressional inaction has left U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder without permanent appointees in at least six top positions inside the Justice Department, even as he faces increased criticism from U.S. lawmakers.
Holder, a cabinet holdover from President Barack Obama’s first term, lacks Senate-confirmed heads atop three of agency’s eight divisions. The confirmed leaders of two others are in the process of departing. His legislative and legal policy offices also are without Senate-confirmed officeholders.
The leadership vacuum highlights a problem that has plagued federal agencies during the Obama administration, as a lengthy vetting process and Republican roadblocks leave key positions unfilled, according to current and former congressional and Justice Department officials.
“It’s a toxic combination of the unwillingness of people to go through the process, the extra layer of scrutiny potential nominees are facing on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and the willingness of Republicans to block just about any nominee,” said Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “I don’t know whether the Lord Himself could get confirmed at this point.”
Holder, 62, also will soon be without Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller, who departs in September after 12 years on the job. The administration may name his successor, who must also face Senate scrutiny, in the coming weeks, according to two people familiar with the decision who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss personnel deliberations.
The contentious relationship between Holder and congressional Republicans has escalated over the past two weeks.
He is a target for criticism for the government’s decision to seize the phone records of Associated Press reporters as part of an investigation into the leak about an intelligence operation. Holder, who said his deputy signed off on the subpoenas of the phone records, has recused himself from the Justice Department’s probe into the matter.
Republican lawmakers continue to call for his resignation over a botched federal gun operation known as Fast and Furious, in which federal agents lost track of more than 2,000 firearms. Two of the guns were found at the scene of the 2010 killing in Arizona of a U.S. Border Patrol agent while others turned up in Mexico.
The candidacy of an Obama nominee for one of Holder’s top deputies at the department has stalled because of lawmaker opposition and a second nomination has not been considered by the Senate.
Tony West has been nominated to be the department’s third-ranked official and Stuart Delery was nominated in March to lead the department’s civil division. Both are serving as the acting officials. Neither has received a committee vote on their nominations, though the Judiciary Committee held its hearing on West’s nomination yesterday.
West’s nomination to be associate attorney general has languished since last September, as Republicans led by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley request more than 1,000 documents concerning the role he played in persuading officials in St. Paul, Minnesota, to drop a Supreme Court case that risked undermining a Justice Department enforcement tool in housing discrimination cases.
The delayed confirmations “matter enormously,” Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general in President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department, who said potential replacements face a tough path through the confirmation process.
“It matters for authority, for morale and when it is coupled with attacks from Capitol Hill on the nominee, it’s an enormous time suck,” Raben said.
The slow pace on Capitol Hill has been matched by the White House, which hasn’t named nominees for key positions at the department, including a replacement for Lisa Monaco, former head of the national security division. Monaco moved to the White House in March to serve as Obama’s top counterterrorism and homeland security aide.
Monaco may not be in the White House for long. She is one of the leading contenders for the soon-to-be open FBI director position, according to the two people who asked for anonymity. The FBI choice has narrowed between Monaco, who played a leading role in the investigation into the April Boston Marathon bombing, and James Comey, a former deputy attorney general in President George W. Bush’s administration, according to the people.
The administration’s candidates for FBI director were reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal.
Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, said all appointments are “thoroughly vetted” and the administration continues to have “full confidence” in the Justice Department’s ability to do its work.
“It is unfortunate that congressional Republicans have openly gone to extraordinary lengths to obstruct the confirmation process for the president’s nominees, which slows down the process from beginning to end,” Lehrich said in an e-mail.
Lanny Breuer, the head of the criminal division for nearly four years, also left in March. Mythili Raman, Breuer’s chief of staff and top deputy, is running division on an acting basis until Obama nominates a full-time replacement.
The continuity brought by Raman, as well as the permanence of having nominees like West and Delery placed in the “acting” roles helps relieve some of the concerns raised by the open positions, according to Matt Miller, a former spokesman for Holder.
The unfilled positions “are clearly a problem, but it’s a problem that is alleviated somewhat when you have these people in place,” said Miller, now a partner in the Washington office of policy and crisis management firm Vianovo.
The Obama administration has yet to nominate candidates for the assistant attorney general positions at the legislative affairs office and the Office of Legal Counsel.
The department “remains fully committed” to fulfilling its mission, said Nanda Chitre, a Justice Department spokeswoman.
“It’s essential to move forward with a timely confirmation process to fill the remaining vacancies in leadership positions and strengthen our ability to meet future challenges,” Chitre said in a statement.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said uncertainty about how long Holder himself will stay in the job may have complicated the search for deputies.
“They may want the new attorney general to have a say in who is on the team,” Whitehouse said.