McAleenan resignation puts the spotlight on DHS vacancies

Ten of the most senior posts at the Department of Homeland Security are held by acting leaders, and only five have candidates in the Senate confirmation pipeline.

Image: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock

Kevin McAleenan announced his resignation as acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on Oct. 11. The move adds yet another top-level vacancy at DHS, which was already unusually bereft of Senate-confirmed senior leaders under the Trump administration.

McAleenan took on the acting secretary job after his predecessor, Kirstjen Nielsen, was forced out in April of this year. Before being elevated to the top job, McAleenan, a longtime career official, served as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. He was confirmed to the CBP post on a bipartisan vote of 77-19 in March 2018.

Currently, DHS lacks a Senate-confirmed secretary, deputy security, general counsel, chief financial officer, undersecretary for management, undersecretary for science and technology, undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There are nominees for five of these posts in the pipeline, but still no permanent leader nominated for secretary, deputy secretary, general counsel or undersecretary for management.

"I think this is deeply troubling," Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, told FCW. "DHS is a vital organization and has never had a leadership vacuum of this sort in its history."

At a May 1 hearing held to discuss the lack of Senate-confirmed DHS leadership, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said that "the president wants more people who have not gone through the confirmation process because they are more beholden to him and more likely to carry out his controversial policies without question."

At the same hearing, then DHS Inspector General John Roth noted that the agency "has demonstrated an inability to mesh divergent components with different histories, cultures, and missions into a single agency with a unity of effort. Knitting together a unified DHS with all components requires strong and committed leadership and oversight."

Stier told FCW that the absence of confirmed leaders has implications for the morale of the workforce and some of the big integration challenges facing the agency.

Persistent executive vacancies are "going to diminish the ability of DHS to do its job well," Stier said. "That's not a slight on the incredible people that are working there, but leaders matter." He added that a long period of acting leadership is "immensely debilitating" for an agency.

In an interview with the Washington Post a week before he stepped down, McAleenan discussed some of the frustrations of trying to manage DHS when the president and White House advisors are using DHS policy -- in particular on immigration -- as a political cudgel.

"What I don't have control over is the tone, the message, the public face and approach of the department in an increasingly polarized time," McAleenan said. "That's uncomfortable, as the accountable, senior figure."

In a post on Twitter, President Donald Trump said he would have a successor to McAleenan named within a week, citing "many wonderful candidates" to choose from.