Economic Policy-makers Go MIA

National Journal on the holes in Obama's team

The focus in the political press today is all about whether Congressional Republicans, having extracted promises from the White House to cut spending from core government programs, can take yes for an answer in the debt-ceiling fight.

But over at the National Journal site, Stacy Kaper and Catherine Hollander have a good article on another essential, but often overlooked, part of the economic policy picture. That’s the fact that, at important positions within the administration, there is often quite literally nobody on the job.

The story is news-pegged off the potential upcoming departure of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and it notes that central figures like Council of Economic Advisors chairman Austan Goolsbee, vice-presidential advisor Jared Bernstein, and Treasury undersecretary Jeffrey Goldstein have all either recently left or will do so soon. (And that’s not to mention folks like Christina Romer and Larry Summers, part of an earlier wave of departures.) But it’s this passage that lays out both the scope and the implications of the problem:

But what has gotten far less attention is that the administration has put little emphasis on new solutions to the painful housing correction, and has almost no permanent financial regulators in charge of implementing all the reforms Congress passed last year that were intended to protect taxpayers from another financial catastrophe like the one that cost so many people their jobs, homes, and retirement savings.

Michael Barr, the former Treasury assistant secretary for financial institutions, was looked to as a surrogate leader on financial reform and was known as an outspoken advocate for foreclosure mitigation even before he joined the administration. His position has not been replaced since he left last year, and no one in the administration is seen as taking up the same mantle.

There is also the shortage of two governors on the Federal Reserve Board and the lack of permanent heads in place at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Federal Housing Administration. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Vice Chairman Marty Gruenberg has been named to succeed Sheila Bair as FDIC chief, but his Senate confirmation process has not begun.

That’s quite a list of empty chairs. And, the reporters add:

In the meantime, the administration is only able to focus fully on one issue at a time, and it is taking its toll on other financial policy matters.

Confirmation fights over some of the specific positions mentioned in this passage—specifically, at the Federal Reserve and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—have been pretty widely covered in the press. But what’s different, and important, here is the emphasis on focus within the administration. The attention of policy-makers is a scarce commodity. If economic policy-making within the executive branch becomes limited to a small group close to the White House, and members of that group spend all their time in budget fights with Congress, that means nobody’s paying attention to other pressing issues—like, say, “the painful housing correction” and “foreclosure mitigation.” (To add a bit of press criticism here, the White House press corps isn’t drawing anyone’s attention to those concerns, either.)

The result is policy stagnation. Administrative agencies often have a fair bit of leeway to respond to new problems without explicit Congressional authorization. But without credible, permanent leadership, they’re unlikely to try anything creative.

While the article does a great job calling attention to the problem, though, it is if anything too kind to the Obama White House. The second half of the article is devoted to the ways in which “the bruising confirmation process” deters potential nominees, and the fairly unprecedented level of GOP obstructionism to new appointments.

Those are real issues, but Obama has done strikingly little to grapple with them. Calls for a president to show “leadership” are often demands for heightened rhetoric that is emotionally satisfying but unlikely to be productive. But here, there were tools available to Obama—beginning with simply communicating to Senate Democrats, who still control their chamber, that this is an important problem—that he seems rarely to have used. As far back as March 2010, the blogger Jonathan Bernstein, one of the most astute analysts of the presidency on the web, was calling this passivity “Obama’s biggest failure.” Despite some tentative movement since then, there’s little reason to expect a different verdict today.

That aside, the National Journal piece is an important look at an underappreciated story. And there’s a good opportunity here for another reporter to pull out a particular agency—say, one of the housing agencies, or the OCC, where Obama has just nominated a new director—and take a deep look at how policy might be different, and how people’s lives might be affected, with strong leadership in place. Any takers?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.