What Is Wrong With The Treasury Department?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 18, 2009

Well, basically, everything:

Seven weeks after the Treasury Department announced that it was ousting General Motors chief G. Richard Wagoner Jr. in the federal bailout of the company, he is still technically on GM’s payroll.

Wagoner’s removal has been held up because senior Treasury officials have yet to decide whether he should get the $20 million severance package that the company had promised him.

The delay is one of many hitches that have slowed a host of important policy actions in the four months since Timothy F. Geithner became Treasury secretary. While Geithner has taken dramatic steps to address flashpoints in the economy, the work of carrying out those policies has bogged down because critical decisions about how to do so aren’t being made, interviews with a broad range of federal officials show.

Government officials, inside the Treasury and out, say the unresolved issues are piling up in part because of vacancies in the department’s top ranks. But some of the officials also cite the Treasury’s ad-hoc management, which is dominated by a small band of Geithner’s counselors who coordinate rescue initiatives but lack formal authority to make decisions. Heavy involvement by the White House in Treasury affairs has further muddied the picture of who is responsible for key issues, the officials add.

One of the department’s signature initiatives, considered vital for getting at the root of the financial crisis, aims at relieving banks of their toxic assets. But to those familiar with the program, it remains unclear who will decide some of the practical details, such as whether foreign firms will be allowed to participate in the funds that buy the assets. This uncertainty is slowing the rollout of the program, which in any case has proven daunting to design. Announced in early February, it may not launch until July, officials say.

In March, Treasury officials clashed over a $15 billion initiative to use money from the federal bailout package to free up credit for small businesses. Geithner’s counselors pressed to announce the program quickly, despite protests from the career staff members who said it would not work. Unable to raise the issue with Geithner himself, the staff members appealed directly to the White House but were rebuffed, according to sources familiar with the episode.

President Obama announced the program two months ago, and it is still struggling to get off the ground. Officials are looking to overhaul the proposal.

I continue to find it terrifying that Treasury officials are managing car companies and other businesses. I find it unsurprising that they are failing at their appointed task. I find it especially unsurprising that they are failing at their appointed task, given that they are also failing to carry out what might be considered more traditional government functions.

Of course, Treasury officials can’t be blamed for every part of this debacle. A large amount of blame has to be laid at the feet of the White House as well:

While federal departments often experience a degree of upheaval when administrations change, the difference between the Treasury of former secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Geithner’s has been stark. Under Paulson, the department nearly always made its own decisions. The Bush White House, nearing the end of its tenure, hardly intervened.

But now, even minor matters, such as Web site design or news releases, are reviewed by the White House. Staff members detailed from the National Economic Council, reporting directly to Obama senior economist Lawrence H. Summers, roam the Treasury building. Treasury staff members working on restructuring the nation’s automakers took much of their direction from the NEC, sources said.

Geithner said he welcomes the input from senior White House officials because they provide intelligent feedback and because he has been short-staffed. After studying the last dozen Treasury secretaries, Geithner said he became convinced that the Treasury needed to closely collaborate with the White House.

But the time spent meeting with White House colleagues on high-priority issues — from the federal budget and tax policy to health-care reform and a proposed overhaul of financial regulation — has left him little chance to manage his staff.

Is it too much to expect that Obama Administration officials stop making cracks about the management style exhibited by the Bush Administration while amateur hour continues to reign at the Treasury Department?

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