WASHINGTON - The leadership vacancy created by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's resignation is the latest and greatest blow to a department where one-third of the heads of key agencies and divisions have been filled with acting officials or remained vacant for months.
Napolitano's departure, slated for September, will create the 15th hole in the department's 45 leadership positions. Napolitano's chief of staff and the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement are leaving this month. The deputy secretary, general counsel, heads of Customs and Border Protection, privacy, legislative affairs, intelligence and analysis and more are filled with acting officials. Other key positions, like the executive secretariat, inspector general and deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity remain vacant.
The pattern of putting acting officials in leadership positions at the Homeland Security Department-- sometimes replacing acting officials with other acting officials -- has been going on for months. This swath of vacancies raises questions about how a department depleted of permanent leadership could implement changes, particularly as Congress considers overhauling the nation's immigration system.
"Her departure is a substantial addition to the growing list of unfilled key leadership positions within the department," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said of Napolitano's resignation. "The administration should move swiftly to fill the gaping holes in its management."
The White House referred a request for comment to the Homeland Security Department, which did not respond.
The Homeland Security Department is comprised of agencies that protect the president, respond to disasters, enforce immigration laws and secure air travel. Many of the unfilled leadership positions don't require Senate confirmation.
Napolitano on Friday announced she would be leaving her post in early September to become the president of the University of California school systems. It was not immediately clear who the president wants to replace her. The acting undersecretary at the department is poised to take over as acting secretary unless the Senate confirms the president's nominee for Homeland Security undersecretary before Napolitano leaves. If that happens, the new undersecretary would assume the role of acting secretary until the president names a replacement.
"Sometimes, when major changes occur, there is a tendency to focus on the uncertainty of the future, perhaps at the expense of the urgency of the now," the assistant secretary of policy at the Homeland Security Department, David Heyman, said Friday in an email to his staff following Napolitano's announcement. "This department has seamlessly and professionally negotiated a number of similar changes in the past, and I know a number of you all are veterans of such transitions."
While some of these vacancies have little impact on daily operations around the country, the lack of permanent leadership at the top can have long term effects over policy, said Richard Skinner, the department's former inspector general. There has been no permanent replacement for Skinner since he left two years ago.
Acting officials are always reluctant to make long-term policy calls, said James Ziglar, the last commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was absorbed into the Homeland Security Department in 2003.
"On the administration side, management side, everyone is looking at the person, saying, `You aren't going to be around very long, so we're going to just hold off doing stuff,"' Ziglar said.
Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the securing of the nation's borders, has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since the George W. Bush administration. President Barack Obama in 2010 exercised his ability to bypass Congress and appoint Alan Bersin as head of CBP. But that appointment was up at the end of 2011. The acting commissioner who replaced Bersin recently retired from government, only to be replaced by another acting commissioner.
Without a Senate-confirmed commissioner of CBP, it will be difficult to put in place and actual border strategy, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
The Democratic-controlled Senate has passed an ambitious and broad immigration bill, which includes doubling the size of the Border Patrol to more than 40,000 agents, offering a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally and increasing the number of people who come to the United States as temporary workers. House Republicans have vowed to fight the bill, arguing that the border isn't secure and that must come first.
"Whoever is in the position is always looking over their shoulder, wondering if they are going to have a job," Noorani said.
The position of the department's chief privacy officer is also filled by an acting official at a time when evaluating and protecting privacy will be critical for any new immigration laws likely to include deciding who among the millions of immigrants living the country illegally gets to stay.
The department's second most senior position has been without a confirmed leader since Jane Holl Lute left in April. Rand Beers, who has been the acting deputy secretary, is poised to take over the department while the Senate considers Alejandro Mayorkas to fill the second top job permanently.
But Mayorkas' confirmation would also create another vacancy, this time at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That agency is responsible for policing who gets immigration benefits, including green cards, and is likely to have a significant role in implementing any immigration reform that addresses the millions of immigrants already living in the United States illegally.
And not having a permanent inspector general to serve as the department's watchdog is a significant problem, said Skinner, who once served in an acting capacity in that role.
"The longer that position stays vacant, the more vulnerable the department becomes," he said.
Career government employees need leaders who have the backing of the president, said Prakash Khatri, the former ombudsman at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"When they know there's an acting head of the office, generally the careerist will not make any major moves," Khatri said. "At a time when we have major reform pending, that is the last thing we want."