Tim Geithner is a brilliant guy who's working 20-hour days to fix the economy, but he can't do it by himself. So why are key posts at the Treasury Department—every single job requiring Senate confirmation—vacant except for his own? One answer: a tough IRS bureaucrat is spooking potential hires and embarrassing people who do apply. But officials on Capitol Hill and in the financial sector say the White House is making excuses, and frustration is mounting over the thin staffing, which critics charge is paralyzing the administration's economic team at a crucial moment. "Too much work and too few bodies," said a financial-industry official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive topic.
Current and former government officials say Obama's economic team is so skeletal in part because candidates are stumbling over the rigorous ethical hurdles that the president himself imposed. For a start, Obama set tough standards for former lobbyists. One former government official, who does not expect to join the administration because of past lobbying work, calls it "the scarlet L." "People are flunking out and pulling out everywhere," he said. Then there's the tax specialist from the IRS, who has been assigned temporarily to the staff of the Senate Finance Committee and has been empowered to review confidential tax data submitted by appointees. So far, the committee's review has turned up embarrassing tax issues for several nominees, including Geithner himself. Sources say the vetting has emerged as a serious deterrent, especially for experts from the financial industry. "The vetting process isn't determined by the work of any one staff member," said an aide to Finance Committee chair Sen. Max Baucus.
For the moment, the bailout program is being run by Neel Kashkari, a Bush holdover whom the Obama White House appears keen to ditch. And according to Treasury spokesman Isaac Baker, the slack is being picked up by "a group of appointees and the many talented career professionals." But all the openings at the top, sources say, have forced Geithner to spend too much time testifying before Congress—and not enough time saving the world.