By Glenn Somerville and Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is surrounding himself with former aides to President Bill Clinton as he attempts to rebound from a rocky start even as top-tier vacancies have slowed decision-making.
Former Clinton press secretary Jake Siewert, a business development and government affairs officer at aluminum giant Alcoa, is headed to Treasury soon as a senior adviser, sources said.
He will join an advisory team that also includes former Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling and Lee Sachs, who was an assistant Treasury secretary for financial matters under Clinton.
Stephanie Cutter, who has been Treasury spokeswoman, is headed to the White House for a time to help manage the rollout of President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The former Clinton aides have credibility because Clinton’s tenure in the 1990s was marked by a strong economy, though the economic problems they encountered bear little resemblance to the crushing challenges President Barack Obama faces.
For all of their influence, however, there are real limits on the counselors’ authority, including an inability to testify before Congress that effectively shifts more of those duties onto the officials who have been vetted by lawmakers.
And there is strength in numbers. The Washington Post reported this week that some key decisions are on hold because of an absence of top-level deputies to Geithner.
One anecdote cited by the Post was that Rick Wagoner was still technically on General Motors’ payroll seven weeks after he was ousted as the automaker’s top executive.
Nominees have not even been named yet for some posts, like that of under secretary for domestic finance, a key position because that person must help devise strategy for raising the staggering sums of money Treasury will have to borrow to keep the government operating.
Bill Galston, an economic expert at the Brookings Institution think tank who was a Clinton policy adviser, said Geithner’s Treasury Department is being slowed by an absence of a top layer under Geithner.
It is a result, he said, of a Senate confirmation process taken to the extreme. The background checks on potential nominees got tougher after Geithner was damaged by the news that he had failed to pay back taxes and Tom Daschle’s bid to become health and human services secretary was derailed over a similar issue.
“We have at this point a system of nominating, vetting and confirming that is almost broken,” Galston said. “We have piled layer upon layer upon layer of reviews, questionnaires, disclosures etc. over the last 30 years that it has now reached a point where even people who are willing to go through the process have to wait around forever.”
Still waiting for a Senate hearing is Lael Brainard, another former economic adviser in the Clinton administration who was nominated for the position of under secretary for international affairs.
If confirmed, she would become top financial diplomat for Treasury and take on much of the responsibility for sensitive issues from China currency policy to laying the groundwork for economic summits with other countries.
There are signs of progress, and also signs that lawmakers recognize Treasury’s problems managing the many complex new programs and want to help it get more people in place.
The Senate Finance Committee on Monday night approved veteran White House and Treasury lawyer Neal Wolin as deputy Treasury secretary, clearing the way for confirmation by the full Senate that committee chairman Senator Max Baucus said should happen quickly.
“The Treasury Department has a colossal task in its management of the economic recovery,” Baucus said. “It’s our job to make sure the right nominees get up and running as soon as possible.”
Nominees have been put forward for some other spots where expertise could be brought to bear on Treasury’s decision-making process.
The District of Columbia’s deputy mayor, Daniel Tangherlini, was named by the White House for the position of assistant Treasury secretary for management and chief financial officer as well as chief performance officer. His experience includes literally making the trains run on time as interim general manager of the city’s transit authority.
Geithner, at a forum on Monday organized by Newsweek magazine, denied Treasury was unusually slow in filling top positions.
“These things always take longer than you expect,” he said. “If you look at the arc of confirmation in this administration we’re ahead of the curve in some areas, we’re slightly behind in other areas but even below that level we’ve got some great, talented people.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman