Carolyn Kaster, The Associated Press The newly renovated staircase of the South Portico porch of the White House are seen in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, during a media tour. The new steps are made of limestone from Indiana.
Eight months into the Trump administration, a slate of top federal jobs in Colorado and the West remains unfilled — a hiring delay that touches everything from the environment to criminal justice and one which local leaders and activists said hampers their ability to work with the White House.
Full-time administrators have yet to be installed in the Colorado regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Health and Human Services, among others.
The state also has an acting U.S. attorney and a vacant seat on the federal bench. A jurist nominated in June to replace U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch on the 10th U.S. District Court of Appeals only recently was given the green light to appear before a U.S. Senate panel for vetting.
The slow pace hasn’t gone unnoticed by either Democrats or Republicans, though the two sides often disagree on its primary cause — the White House or Congress.
Research by CNN and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan good-government group, indicates that Trump has fallen far behind predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush in nominating federal officials and getting them confirmed.
“We certainly have noticed it, but our hope is that they are going to fill those slots quickly and we’re beginning to see some motion there,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who added that the biggest impact was on government-to-government communication.
“When you have things that need (an) explanation or a decision … sometimes you have to wait,” said Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “If you don’t have the people on the ground, it’s often hard to get that information or those decisions as quickly as sometimes you’d like.”
Asked about their progress, White House officials couldn’t put an exact figure on the number of open federal jobs in Colorado or what the government calls Region 8, which includes Colorado and several nearby states. One member of a committee tasked with vetting local candidates said the panel had forwarded dozens of names to the administration since January.
“We’ve tried to weigh in on the key positions that either can have a significant impact on Region 8 or the key positions where we were able to identify somebody who we thought could really make a difference,” said Robert Blaha, who chaired Trump’s Colorado campaign and is part of that vetting panel.
He blamed the hiring delay on several factors, from the slow pace of the Senate to the time needed to conduct in-depth background checks.
“I’d be a liar if I said the entire process isn’t a bottleneck,” Blaha said.
As for the administration’s own responsibility, Blaha suggested it could do more.
“I don’t know everything that’s going on inside the White House, but I will tell you that I think it’s time to pick up the pace,” he said. “Anything the White House can do to encourage legislation … to accelerate it, that’s a possibility. To look at temporary assignments, that’s a possibility.”
Also something to consider, Blaha added: Trump may not want to fill every position, in an effort to reduce the size of government.
According to a census of federal workers published after the election, there are about 9,000 federal jobs in which Trump could install his own people, although more than half of those positions don’t often change when a new president takes office, putting the figure closer to 4,000.
But the turnover does have an impact, even if the basic function of government continues.
“Without permanent leadership in place, these regional offices lack clear direction, are unable to develop new partnerships and can be forced to delay things like processing permit applications, grant requests and more,” U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, said in a statement.
The Denver Federal Center in Lakewood.
One notable vacancy is the Denver-based EPA spot for Region 8, which covers Colorado, Montana, the Dakotas, Utah, Wyoming and 27 Tribal Nations.
Former Regional Administrator Shaun McGrath, who oversaw the Gold King Mine spill response, left in January. Since then, Deb Thomas has been filling his job in the interim. Several names recently were floated for the job, including Patrick Davis, who served as Colorado state director during Trump’s 2016 campaign, and Doug Benevento, recently a Douglas County School Board member.
The Gold King Mine can be seen from above on August 17, 2016 near Silverton, Colorado.
Joni Teter, who retired three years ago after 25 years at the EPA, said an office can do routine work without a full-time leader but can’t move forward on bigger items.
“But when we get to the point where there are decisions to be made, whether that is decisions about a phase at a particular Superfund site or a permit or an enforcement action, that doesn’t happen without an appointed person,” said Teter, who pioneered Save EPA in response to the Trump administration’s policies.
The oil and gas industry isn’t happy either – though for a different reason.
“What we are seeing is that Region 8 is acting like the election never took place,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said about the local EPA office.
She didn’t cite specifics in Colorado — other than an issue dealing with air regulations — but Sgamma said she sees the “need for adult supervision in Region 8.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development declined to comment about its search for a new regional administrator. But advocates for the homeless said filling the job is essential.
“That role serves as the liaison for us and Washington, D.C., and in these incredibly uncertain times, we need to have a local contact that can provide policy and program guidance,” said Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “It would be much more comforting to know that there was a leader on the ground that would be available to help us navigate and plan for any potential budget cuts.”
Similar concerns surround the U.S. attorney’s office in Colorado, which has been spearheaded by acting top federal prosecutor Bob Troyer for about 13 months. That time period isn’t necessarily unusual, officials say, though it still can put the state at a disadvantage.
“The work of the U.S. attorney’s office is carried out by dedicated career staff whose efforts continue full-force, even in the absence of a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney,” said John Walsh, who held the role until leaving in July 2016.
“But a presidential appointee’s voice carries added weight in Washington, D.C., to make sure the office and its people get the budget, staffing and mission support they need to protect the public here in Colorado,” Walsh added.
Also in the justice realm, Colorado lacks a U.S. marshal to lead the agency that handles law enforcement for federal courts.
Records show Judge Robert Blackburn has yet to be replaced since taking senior status on Colorado’s U.S. District Court bench — which has a crowded caseload — and there is no nominee to replace him.
Colorado Supreme Court Justice Allison Eid is President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Neil Gorsuch on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Colorado Supreme Court Justice Allison Eid was tapped in June to replace Gorsuch. Her nomination hearing was just set for Sept. 20.
Another agency lacking a full-time regional administrator for Colorado and the region is FEMA. But so far, coming off a mild wildfire season in the state, no major problems have been reported.
Darren Coldwell, county administrator in Lincoln County, Mont., praised the agency for its response to the fires burning tens of thousands of acres in the area he oversees. More than a dozen structures — including homes — have burned there, and FEMA has been quick to respond.
“We did just get approved here in the last couple of days for FEMA assistance,” he said Monday. “They have been very responsive. I don’t know if not having that person in there made a difference.”
Mark K. Matthews reported from Washington.