Vacancies Strain White House’s Goals for Economy

Sewell Chan|The New York Times

President Obama signaled on Friday that he was close to choosing a director for a new consumer bureau, but an array of top jobs that will be crucial to shaping economic policy and financial regulation for the rest of his term remain unfilled.

At a White House news conference, Mr. Obama praised Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who was the chief proponent of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and is a front-runner to lead it. Calling her “a dear friend” and a “tremendous advocate” for the new agency, the president said he had talked with her but added, “I’m not going to make an official announcement until it’s ready.”


Ms. Warren is considered a foe of Wall Street but a favorite of liberals. If she were nominated to the post it could set off a partisan brawl similar to the battles that nearly swamped the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law Mr. Obama signed in July, which created the bureau.

That position, however, is only one of a half-dozen unfilled presidentially appointed posts that have vast powers over the mortgage market, financial stability and the banking and insurance industries. The seats have been vacant even though the new law directed regulatory agencies to make scores of major decisions that will shape Wall Street and the financial sector for years to come.

Delays in the appointment process — lengthened by Congressional brinksmanship and cumbersome vetting — are not new, and some choices have come quickly. On Friday, the president named Austan D. Goolsbee chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, filling a position that had just opened. But the confluence of vacancies in the economic realm comes at a time of regulatory transformation, a slowing economy and a Republican resurgence. (Mr. Goolsbee, who was previously confirmed as a member of the council, did not need a second Senate confirmation to become chairman.)

The prospect of Republicans making strong gains in Congress in November has complicated the appointment calculation, as nearly all of the unfilled jobs require Senate confirmation.

“There’s a normal attrition around midterm,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, who was President Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser and later President Bill Clinton’s deputy Treasury secretary. “What’s different now is the likelihood of a dramatic change in the composition of Congress, and the fact that the Republicans may use each and every one of these to make an economic point.”

The tight Congressional calendar also means that some of the jobs might go unfilled for months longer.

“It is close to impossible to think that the Senate can take a nomination, hold hearings and confirm the person before the election,” Mr. Eizenstat said. “And getting this done in the postelection session is possible, but very difficult.”

In some cases, the president has put forward names that have not been acted on.

For example, the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, which is considering additional steps to prop up the flagging recovery, has just four of its full complement of seven members. The Senate has yet to confirm three candidates Mr. Obama nominated in April to fill the vacancies.

One factor that has delayed the decision over the consumer post is the fierce opposition of banking and business groups to Ms. Warren, who is chairwoman of the Congressional panel that oversees the 2008 Wall Street bailout. Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the chairman of the Banking Committee, has said she might have trouble being confirmed.

On Friday, Mr. Obama voiced frustration at Senate Republicans for routinely blocking his appointments, “even if I nominate somebody for dogcatcher.”

Pointing to vacant judgeships and unfilled positions at the Department of Homeland Security, he added: “It’s very hard when you’ve got a determined minority in the Senate that insists on a 60-vote filibuster on every single person that we’re trying to confirm.” The Republicans, he said, are “just playing games.”

But a spokesman for the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said that more than 700 nominees, a vast majority, had been approved by unanimous voice votes and that other vacant jobs awaited action by Democratic-led committees or nominations from the White House.

Under the Dodd-Frank law, Mr. Obama must appoint a second vice chairman of the Fed, to oversee supervision of large financial institutions and state-chartered member banks. (Daniel K. Tarullo, who was Mr. Obama’s first appointment to the Fed’s board, is a likely candidate.)

Mr. Obama also has to choose someone to a six-year term as director of a new Office of Financial Research within the Treasury Department; that official will support the work of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a new body of regulators with vast new powers. Among those sitting on the council will be an expert on the insurance industry, whom the president also needs to name.

Asked about the vacancies, Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman, said Mr. Obama was “conducting a deliberative and thorough process to ensure that the very best individuals are appointed to the regulatory positions created in this law.”

Other jobs already exist but have not been permanently filled.

They include director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and will be pivotal in shaping the future of homeownership policy, and comptroller of the currency, a position that dates to the Civil War and that supervises nationally chartered banks, including Bank of America and Citigroup.

The housing job has been vacant since August 2009. An acting director has been filling in amid a broad discussion about the future of government support for the mortgage market.

Prospective candidates for comptroller include the North Carolina banking commissioner, Joseph A. Smith Jr., the New York banking superintendent, Richard H. Neiman, and an assistant Treasury secretary, Michael S. Barr, according to people briefed on the search. Mr. Barr is also a candidate to lead the consumer bureau.

White House officials said the comptroller’s job had been vacant only since Aug. 14, and said the housing finance job would be filled “in the near future.”

David E. Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who studies presidential appointments, said these jobs were difficult to fill for several reasons.

“The pool of people to select from for complex economic or regulatory positions is quite thin,” he said. “There are fewer loyalists available for these positions than people think, because of the expertise requirements. Add on to this the fact that many people with expertise for these positions are enmeshed in the system they are going to be asked to regulate. This causes conflict of interest concerns in perception, if not reality. Serious vetting has to occur to make sure nominees will fly politically.”

As a result, he said, most of the jobs might not be filled until well after the Nov. 2 election.