Vacancies Common Among Heads of Transportation Agencies
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Three of the major U.S. transportation safety agencies are without permanent leaders as the nation contends with toxic railway spills, near-collisions on runways and surging traffic deaths.
The Federal Aviation Administration is on its second acting chief in 15 months, while agencies overseeing highways and the transportation of hazardous waste have been without Senate-confirmed leaders for most of the past two years.
The leadership vacuums, blamed on a combination of slow action by the Biden administration and partisan clashes in Congress, extend beyond the top jobs, according to public records, current and former officials, and industry representatives. At the FAA, multiple senior posts overseeing safety and other tasks are also being performed by people in acting roles.
The agencies are legally permitted to operate under acting leadership and can continue to enforce regulations, conduct investigations and draft new rules. Yet former officials and industry leaders say it is inherently more difficult for an acting leader to take aggressive action on issues such as FAA’s air-traffic controller shortage or the hazardous wastes released in the East Palestine, Ohio, train wreck on Feb. 3.
“It is important to get an administrator nominated and confirmed as quickly as possible,” said Michael Huerta, who led the FAA for five years until 2018. “There’s an awful lot going on in aviation and critical decisions need to be made and that’s only going to happen if there’s a confirmed administrator in the top spot.”
The situation is prompting growing concern that decision-making on important policy could be undermined.
The Transportation Department said in a statement, “We have full confidence in leadership at the department and look forward to confirming more presidential appointees in the future.”
And the White House, in a statement, said the 850 officials that have been nominated and confirmed across the federal government during the Biden administration bests the Trump administration’s record at the same point.
Qualified nominees to take over the FAA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration faced “unfounded” Republican attacks, the White House said in the statement. Despite that, the two agencies have experienced leaders running their operations.
The White House didn’t address why it hasn’t yet nominated anyone to run the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
With the exception of a three-month period last year, NHTSA has been without a permanent head since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. In May, the DOT’s Inspector General wrote a report criticizing the agency for moving too slowly on safety investigations.
PHMSA, which oversees the transport of dangerous chemicals like the ones that burned after the East Palestine derailment, has been without a Senate-confirmed chief since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.
Polly Trottenberg was appointed as acting FAA administrator on June 8 after the previous temporary administrator, Billy Nolen, left to work for an air-taxi startup. In addition to running the FAA, Trottenberg is still listed as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s chief deputy.
Multiple senior jobs at the FAA also are being held by people in acting roles, including the agency’s head of safety, several of his deputies and the vice president of its Air Traffic Organization. Those jobs are not nominated by the White House or have to be confirmed by the Senate.
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“The FAA has been just faced with a tremendous amount of challenge,” said Pete Bunce, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, a trade group whose members interact extensively with the agency. “Brain drain is an accurate way of depicting it, a loss of midlevel people with experience. It’s been really stark.”
Bunce and others who spoke about the issue took pains to say that they respected the officials who are currently leading the agencies.
The drawn-out nomination processes of the Biden and Trump administrations have become even more unpredictable as political gamesmanship in Congress heightens with the approach of the 2024 elections.
Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s chief counsel, was withdrawn from consideration to become the permanent agency chief last month after facing criticism from Senate Republicans concerned about her role in the agency’s environmental policies.
Similarly, the nominee to lead the FAA, Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington, was dropped from consideration in March after facing withering questioning from Republicans. Michael Whitaker, who previously served as FAA’s deputy administrator, has been mentioned in news reports as a possible nominee, but hasn’t been formally named by the White House.
Lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly called for the jobs to be filled, but have battled over specific nominees.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, issued a statement after Carlson withdrew, saying he was “proud” of efforts to block her, calling her positions on the environment “extremist.”
People familiar with the workings of the agencies, who asked not to be named discussing the politically sensitive topic, said morale has suffered among career officials and the vacancies hinder work on critical activities.
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At the FAA, for example, the agency is contending with an air traffic control equipment failure that halted all flights in January and a dramatic surge in serious safety incidents on runways. The Ohio freight train derailment thrust PHMSA into one of the most high-profile hazardous waste accidents in years.
NHTSA is conducting a review of crashes involving Tesla Inc.’s automated driving system as overall highway deaths have surged the past two years.
Michael Brooks, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said finalization of new regulations has “slowed significantly” and investigations have dragged on with no resolution since the agency last had stable leadership in January 2017.
“Public safety is ill-served when NHTSA is made a political football, resulting in a constant shuffle at the top,” Brooks said.
— With assistance from Ari Natter and Keith Laing.