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Obama sounds off on GSA nomination hold

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President Obama today sounded off on the hold that’s been placed on Martha Johnson’s nomination to head the General Services Administration, even as the Senate planned a procedural maneuver to force a vote on her confirmation.

After addressing the Senate Democratic Policy Committee Issues Conference this morning, the president opened the floor to questions. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, voiced his frustration that many of Obama’s judicial nominees and political appointees were being blocked by Republicans.

While conceding that Democrats have been guilty of the same thing in the past, Obama said Republicans are blocking nominees for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications for their prospective jobs.

He then specifically mentioned Johnson, whose nomination has been held up by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., because Bond wants GSA to promise to move a federal complex to downtown Kansas City.

Nobody can tell me that there’s anything particularly wrong with her.  They’re blocking her because of some unrelated matter. Don’t hold this — this woman hostage.  If you have an objection about my health-care policies, then let’s debate the health-care policies.  But don’t suddenly end up having a GSA administrator who is stuck in limbo  somewhere because you don’t like something else that we’re doing.

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Martha Johnson, GSA Administrator in waiting, still waiting

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Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., continues to hold up the vote on Martha Johnson’s nomination to lead the General Services Administration. Bond placed a hold on her confirmation this summer to squeeze the agency for information about why it wasn’t closing down the federally owned Bannister Complex outside Kansas City, Mo.  and relocating staff to leased space downtown, as previously planned.

GSA’s new Public Building Service commissioner, Robert Peck, responded to Bond, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., in a letter last week.

In the Oct. 9 letter, Peck explained that plans to close Bannister are still on the table, but GSA has changed its approach to obtaining new space. GSA is scrapping the proposal submitted to Congress last year to replace Bannister with a “lease-construction” project, where a private developer builds space to the government’s specifications and then leases it to the government. GSA has turned away from this plan because further research shows it will be cheaper in the long-term for GSA to build and own a new federal building downtown.

Peck wrote:

Neither leasing space, nor a lease-construction project is our preferred option. Fiscal analyses show that building and owning a federal building is the lowest long-term cost solution. Kansas City also has sufficient federal agencies in leased space to support incurring additional federal ownership of space. Accordingly, we are prepared to begin site selection and design for a new federal building in Kansas City’s central employment area as soon as we can secure the requisite congressional approvals and funding.

Peck also noted that before entering a lease-construction agreement, the agency first must hold a competition to see if suitable space is already available. Because Kansas City has many office building vacancies, a lease-construction project would likely turn into a lease, Peck said.

Despite these assurances,  it appears Bond is not satisfied. According to today’s Kansas City Star, he has not lifted the hold on Johnson’s nomination.  Bond’s spokeswoman Shana Marchio told the Star “we need answers on the how and when this project will move forward,” adding that “without those answers, we cannot know how to evaluate the message from GSA.”

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The broken appointment process

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Update: Included a clarification below. The story about Sen. Bond’s hold on Martha Johnson’s nomination has changed; he’s now reportedly delaying the nomination because he wants the government to approve a $175 million federal office building in Kansas City, according to the Kansas City Star.

Original post: The New York Times has a story this morning about the political appointment process, pointing out that just 43 percent of the Obama administration’s senior political positions have been filled:

While career employees or holdovers fill many posts on a temporary basis, Mr. Obama does not have his own people enacting programs central to his mission. He is trying to fix the financial markets but does not have an assistant treasury secretary for financial markets. He is spending more money on transportation than anyone since Dwight D. Eisenhower but does not have his own inspector general watching how the dollars are used. He is fighting two wars but does not have an Army secretary.

I think it’s fair to say this has less to do with anything the Obama administration is (or is not) doing, and more to do with institutional dysfunction in the Senate and the sheer number of political jobs. Obama has, in fact, nominated an Army secretary; he named John McHugh to the post back in June. Senators have delayed his confirmation. His nominee for GSA administrator, Martha Johnson, is reportedly being delayed in the Senate because Sen. Kit Bond wants a federal building approved in Kansas City.

And, as the Times notes, he has some 500 senior policymaking posts to fill — not including thousands of other Schedule C jobs, ambassadorships and the like.

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