WASHINGTON - When President Bush returns to Washington from his hunting and fishing trip in Texas this week, he will begin the new decade with one tedious, unfinished task. Nearly a year after he took office, his administration is not completely staffed.
A recent study made by Democratic Study Group in the House of Representatives shows that about 25 percent of top administrative jobs are vacant, waiting for Bush to name his choice. Although White House aides have rejected that accounting, their own numbers show the president has yet to announce nominees for 133, or 22 percent, of 609 top policy-making jobs requiring Senate confirmation.
The job-filling process has been sluggish by almost any standard. One reason, according to administration aides, is Bush's desire to hire minorities and women.
Chase Untermeyer, the president's personnel director, said two appointments have been in limbo for months because a Cabinet secretary rejected names of Hispanics offered by the White House, he said.
"The Cabinet secretary has refused again and again to accept any Hispanic recommendations we have made," said Untermeyer. In response, the White House held up the secretary's choice for another position.
He said an agreement struck late last week may settle the dispute.
Untermeyer declined to name the secretary, but the Department of Labor, headed by Elizabeth Dole, is the only one fitting his description.
Although Bush has said he wanted to be the "environmental president," the Environmental Protection Agency has no permanent officials in several top posts.
The nation has had two major disasters, Hurricane Hugo and the California earthquake, without a permanent chief at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"I think it's an indication of a serious problem at some level," said Scott Lilly, executive director of the Democratic Study Group. "The work of the president, to some extent, is naming people to positions of responsibility."
Such attacks are "good old brass knuckles politics," responded Untermeyer. He said Bush has chosen another 99 people for policy-making jobs, but their names have been kept secret while the FBI checks their backgrounds. According to administration figures, the White House must find people for only 34 top agency and department jobs.
Untermeyer has argued that the slow-but-sure approach has advantages, and the administration claims to have hired historic levels of women and minorities.
As of mid-December, Bush had selected women for 98 out of 524 selections, including appointments of ambassadors and U.S. attorneys, Untermeyer said. In his first year as president, Ronald Reagan named 45 women. Former President Jimmy Carter chose 71 in 1977, Untermeyer said.
Bush has named 65 minorities, or 12 percent of those selected, according to Untermeyer. He said there were no official first-year figures on minorities appointed by previous administrations.
Both the administration and its critics have laid some blame for the lagging appointments on more exacting FBI background checks of would-be office holders.
But Lilly said the time to blame the FBI has passed. "By December, if you've still got 100 vacancies, you've plumb run out of excuses," he said.
Lilly said problems may not be visible today, but they will come down the road when the government agencies follow outdated policies because of a lack of new leadership. "That's when the price will be paid," he said.