Vacancies Pile Up In Interior Department Despite Vacancies Act Limits

Feb 18, 2019

More than 750 days into the Trump administration and the Department of Interior may be violating a little known-law. The Vacancies Act was designed specifically for top federal positions that are nominated by the president and need Senate approval. Anne Joseph O'Connell is an expert on the federal law and a professor of law at Stanford University.

She said to "think of it as a stop-gap measure" for what can be a lengthy process. But O'Connell said it's an important one since top federal positions ultimately help decide what will or won't be a priority for their agencies.

"The people who should be in those positions are people who have gone through a vetting process—both the vetting process by the White House on the nomination side and a vetting process by the Senate on the confirmation side," she said.

However, the Vacancies Act does limit how long someone may do the job temporarily. That limit is no more than 210 days, or up to 300 days after the new president takes office.

"When the Vacancies Act time limits have run out, if that's the predominant way that the government is functioning, then that's not good governance," she said.

There are 10 top positions out of seventeen being performed by individuals in an "acting" capacity, including the current secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. He was recently nominated by the president but no date has been set yet for his confirmation hearings.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.