Except for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent threats to extend the Senate’s work week unless it picks up the pace on confirmations, the continued vacancies in top government positions do not get much attention.

Maybe it’s because the government continues to do its thing no matter who’s on top.

More than 450 days into the Trump Administration, confirmed Presidential appointees fill fewer than 45 percent of the 656 “key positions” in the federal government as identified by the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Presidential appointees with Senate confirmations fill only 5 of the top 13 jobs. These include Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue; Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky; Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services William Northey; Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Gregory Ibach; and Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agriculture Affairs Ted McKinney.

The Senate has yet to bring three USDA nominations to the floor for a vote. Those are: Stephen Alexander Vaden for general counsel); Naomi C. Earp for assistant secretary for civil rights; and Kenneth Steven Barbic for assistant for congressional relations.

The Trump Administration has yet to name anyone as USDA’s chief financial officer or the four Under Secretaries who oversee food safety, national forests, nutrition assistance, or science programs.

The WP and Partnership for Public Services keep updating their public data base tracking those 656 “key positions.” It currently shows 137 nominees hanging fire in the Senate with 221 additional slots either “awaiting” nomination or still without nominees.

Whenever political appointees are not available, the career service steps in to take over their duties within government. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), with an annual budget of more than $1 billion and more than 9,000 employees, is charged with the safety of the nation’s beef, pork, poultry and egg products.

The organizational charts call for FSIS to report the Secretary of Agriculture through an Under Secretary for Food Safety, who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. In the past five years, neither President Obama nor President Trump has appointed an Under Secretary for Food Safety.

Top career service personnel have been running FSIS all this time. For the past three years of the Obama administration, former administrator Al Almanza was in charge of FSIS. When Almanza left government to take on food safety at JBS, Secretary Perdue replaced him to two career public servants.

Carmen Rottenberg is acting deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, and Paul Kiecker is acting FSIS administrator. The pair is in their ninth month in the top jobs and will remain until replaced by the new administration.

Rottenberg has held numerous leadership positions at FSIS since joining the agency for than a decade ago, including chief of staff, chief operating officer, and deputy administrator. Kiecker is a 29-year FSIS veteran who held the top field and headquarters positions.

From the limited perspective of some of their public actions, it appears that Rottenberg and Kiecker are taking a page from World War II Admiral Chester Nimitz, who was famous for saying: “When you’re in command, COMMAND!!”

Their public calendars show the pair reaching out to media when controversial issues are timely. During March, for example, Rottenberg met with writers from Food Chemical News and Under Current News on “Siluriformes” or catfish equivalence. And Kiecker meet with a Spencer Daily report on swine modernization. FSIS often has failed to advance its own agenda in the media.

Another change they’ve implemented involves the monthly FSIS meeting with industry and consumer groups. Both the Under Secretary for Food Safety and the FSIS Administrator have held such sessions going back years. Rottenberg and Kiecker have made a transparency “leap forward” by disclosing the names of those who’ve attended the meetings.

Themes recent round of consumer and industry meetings were held separately on March 15. Here’s who participated:

In-person Attendance:

Brian Eyink, Hogan Lovells US LLP
Tiffany Lee, North American Meat Institute
Betsy Booren, Olsson Frank Weeda Law Firm
John Dillard, Olsson Frank Weeda Law Firm
Casey Gallimore, North American Meat Institute
Tori Ahlmeyer, National Turkey Federation
Lisa Wallenda Picard, National Turkey Federation
KatieRose McCullough, North American Meat Institute
Ashley Peterson, National Chicken Council
Danielle Beck, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
Andrea Yablunosky, SAY Consulting, LLC
Kathy Simmons, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
Jessica Watson, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

Teleconference Attendance:

Nicole Finch, Turkey Valley Farms
Norm Robertson, North American Meat Institute
Alison Griffino, Tyson Foods
Laura Bachmeier, National Pork Board
Stacey Grant, Keystone Foods
Barbara Negron, North American Natural Casing Association
Barb Masters, Keystone Foods
Lindsay Cammel, U.S. Meat Export Federation
Paul Clayton, U.S. Meat Export Federation
Travis Arp, U.S. Meat Export Federation
Cheyenne McEndaffer, U.S. Meat Export Federation
Leonard Lang, Import Export Associates
Tony Pavel, Cargill
Suzanne Finstad, Tyson Foods
Karina Martino, Grocery Manufacturers Association

In-person Attendance:

Jim Rogers, Consumers Union
Sarah Sorscher, Center for Science in the Public Interest
Tony Corbo, Food and Water Watch
Jack Barnett, Consumers Union
Robyn Robbins, United Food, and Commercial Workers International Union
Cameron Harsh, Center for Food Safety
Thomas Gremillion, Consumer Federation of America

Teleconference Attendance:

Pat Buck, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention
Tanya Roberts, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention
Felicia Nestor, Food and Water Watch
Zach Corrigan, Food and Water Watch

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