RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama has been in office nine months now and he's still operating with an administration that's shorthanded. Just over half of the posts requiring Senate confirmation have been filled. Nearly 200 high level jobs are still open. Dozens more nominees are awaiting Senate action. Many are being blocked by Republican senators. The delays mean the president's policies at the Labor Department and many other agencies are being carried out by temporary officials, or in some cases, not at all. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: The Labor Department's office of solicitor acts as the labor secretary's chief lawyer. The solicitor is in charge of carrying out enforcement actions, like going after employers who don't pay minimum wage or fail to compensate workers properly for overtime.
According to Chris Owens of the National Employment Law Project, these are things largely overlooked in the previous eight years. Owens has high hopes the Obama administration will take a different approach.
Ms. CHRIS OWENS (National Employment Law Project): During the Bush administration, the Labor Department's approach was to work very closely with the employer community when it came to enforcing the labor laws. It's time to work with the worker community, and that's what Ms. Smith has been doing in New York and it's what we think is what the Labor Department ought to be doing.
NAYLOR: Ms. Smith would be M. Patricia Smith, who was New York State's labor commissioner and who was nominated by President Obama to be Labor Department solicitor. And, in fact, Smith's nomination has been approved by a Senate committee. But then, in stepped Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the panel's ranking Republican. Enzi said he was putting Smith's nomination on hold. His office turned down a request for an interview, but Republicans feel Smith gave inaccurate testimony during her confirmation hearing.
Smith's nomination is one of some three dozen that have been approved by the relevant committees but not yet had a full Senate vote. Many are because of holds. It's a tradition Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says he knows all too well.
Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): In 1991, when the first President Bush nominated me to be education secretary, Senator Metzenbaum put a hold on my nomination. And I remember at my hearing he said, Governor Alexander, I've heard some bad things about you, but I don't want to bring them up here. I said, well, Senator, you've just brought them up.
But he put a hold on me for three months, so I went to my office and sat quietly and wrote up my education plan. There's nothing you can do about it.
NAYLOR: Democrat leaders in the Senate could overcome any hold by getting 60 votes in favor of the nominee. As frustrating as they likely are for the president, the Senate holds account for a fraction of the unfilled positions in his administration. Darrell West of the Brookings Institution says many of the openings can be traced back to the administration's vetting process.
Mr. DARRELL WEST (Brookings Institution): He is using Mother Teresa standards in a city where there are very few saints. And that's really created a huge barrier to getting his people approved.
NAYLOR: The president signed an executive order barring any federally registered lobbyists from serving in his administration. That and the tax problems of some of his earlier nominees have made the vetting process all the more difficult. As a result, West says, the president's policies suffer.
Mr. WEST: President Obama is having to rely much more on the career bureaucracy to implement his ideas, as opposed to having his own individuals who are committed to his vision, want to pursue his agenda and who are willing to work very hard to make sure his ideas get implemented.
NAYLOR: According to the White House Transition Project, the Treasury, Justice, Health and Labor Departments have the most unfilled positions. Mr. Obama can take one consolation. He has about the same number of positions filled as did his predecessor, George W. Bush, at this point in his administration.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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