A slew of high-level vacancies at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have created a domino effect of openings and temporary fill-ins -- leaving a question mark in leadership that concerns some marine advocates.
Two of the three top jobs at NOAA are currently open, and half of the National Marine Fisheries Service's four leadership positions are filled by people in temporary "acting" roles.
With the naming today of Penny Pritzker as the nominee for secretary of Commerce -- a job that has been open for more than six months -- advocates are hopeful the openings at the rest of the department will start to be filled.
The vacancies come in the midst of leadership transitions across the federal government as President Obama begins his second term. But they also come at a key time for NOAA, when the agency is dealing with controversial decisions to limit fish catches, the launch of expensive new satellite systems and an embattled Weather Service.
"I am not sure there has ever been a time, certainly not a recent time, when we have had more challenges for NOAA with fisheries, satellites and the Weather Service," said Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association. "This is a time when you need good leadership, and many of the positions have been without leaders for a good period of time; it does not bode well for the future."
Many of the temporary leaders are career employees with years of experience. Advocates who follow the agency say those acting leaders are managing their posts well. But the uncertainty at the top has created ambiguity for the agency, advocates say.
"These are solid people that the community all has relationships with. It really is more a fact that there is some uncertainty about what changes and what happens when they do put people in those positions," said Emily Woglom, director of government relations for Ocean Conservancy. "Any time you have anyone in an 'acting' position, it feels a little tenuous, and you're not sure whether or not their vision of the future will be what is maintained."
Jane Lubchenco stepped down as NOAA chief in February to return to her family and academic career in Oregon.
Kathryn Sullivan has filled in as the acting administrator since then, but she also still holds one of the agency's top deputy administrator jobs: assistant secretary for environmental observation and prediction. The other deputy post, the assistant secretary for conservation and management, is vacant. Eric Schwaab, who was head of the fisheries service, is filling that NOAA deputy post in an acting role.
Schwaab's temporary assignment as assistant secretary for conservation and management triggered a number of shifts at the National Marine Fisheries Service, where half the top leadership positions are currently relegated to acting leaders. Samuel Rauch is filling in as the head of the fisheries service. While Rauch does that job, Alan Risenhoover is filling in for Rauch's prior job as the acting deputy for regulatory programs.
"It is kind of like a domino effect," said Woglom. "People joke that everyone at NMFS is acting for someone who is acting for someone who is acting."
At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee this spring, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said lawmakers want to know "who is underneath these policies." There needs to be more certainty about agency leadership, Cantwell said, as Congress begins to consider reauthorization of the major law that oversees U.S. fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
"We need to have some leadership out of this agency, as it relates to how we resolve these fishing issues," Cantwell said.
NOAA instituted an agencywide hiring freeze in response to the budget cuts from the sequester. That freeze does not affect presidential nominations that are Senate confirmed, according to NOAA. But any other political position would have to get a special exemption to be hired, said Ciaran Clayton, NOAA communications director.
The agency created a "hiring freeze board" to review such positions and grant approval for the posts.
The openings reflect a pattern within NOAA's parent agency, the Commerce Department. It has been without an official politically appointed chief since June 2012, when former Commerce Secretary John Bryson stepped down for medical reasons. Rebecca Blank has been serving as the acting chief but plans to leave this summer.
President Obama this morning announced his pick for the slot, billionaire Pritzker, a longtime supporter of Obama and heiress to the Hyatt hotel fortune (see related story).
If Pritzker is confirmed for the top post, it could launch a series of appointments for vacancies in other leadership positions at the department. Commerce also has openings for assistant secretary for legislative affairs, chief financial officer, public affairs, chief economist, White House liaison and deputy secretary for economic affairs, among other posts.
The number of Commerce vacancies led Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House panel that holds the purse strings for the department, to ask at a recent appropriations hearing whether Commerce is even a priority for the Obama administration.
"I think the vacancies are higher than even if the administration changes, and this administration did not change. President Obama won re-election," Wolf said at an April hearing in his House Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. "It is really a very, very high number."
Blank, the acting head of the agency, said the vacancy rate is probably similar to other agencies'.
"I don't think our department looks unusual relative to other departments," Blank said at the hearing, which reviewed the department's budget proposal. "It is just that time between terms when people having served several years are leaving and others are moving in."
Blank said the department has moved forward with searches for all the positions and is just going through the "extended vetting period" needed to make sure any nominees could gain swift approval on Capitol Hill.
"I am quite committed to trying to get as far as possible in terms of the processes for filling all of those jobs," Blank told the panel.