Opinion

The transition is our quadrennial gift for the National Capital Region’s real estate market because lot’s of moves are made.   

The Biden Administration has about 4,000 jobs to fill, and about 1,250 of those are political appointments that require U.S. Senate confirmation. The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service have launched the “Biden Political Appointee Tracker.” It is tracking the most important 756 top federal jobs that serve at the pleasure of the president with Senate confirmation. 

At the moment, no one has been officially named to any of the incoming administration’s top jobs and the Senate has not confirmed anyone. President-elect Biden has announced who he wants for 32 jobs, including his cabinet picks, but those don’t become official until Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20.

Filling all those jobs takes time. The White House must recruit and vet candidates, order up FBI background checks, and run interference with the appropriate congressional committees. An appointee’s financial holdings might also require an ethics review and actions to make them compliant. Usually, it is just the system that eats up the time, not some controversy.

The Under Secretary for Food Safety is one of the top jobs. Mindy Brashears is the current and fifth Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Food Safety. 

Her U.S. Senate confirmation occurred less than one year ago on March 23, 2020. She became the top food safety official in the federal government just as the pandemic hit full strength.  

It was fortunate that we at least had somebody doing the top job at that moment because, for the previous six years, Presidents Trump and Obama let the job go vacant.  

The fact is that since the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety was created by the USDA Reorganization Act of October 1994, the top job has gone vacant 50 percent of the time.

The four previous Under Secretaries were Dr. Elisabeth Hagen August 2010-December 2013; Richard Allen Raymond July 2005-January 2009; Elsa A. Murano October 2001-December 2004; and Catherine Woteki July 1997-January 2001. Each of those, two for Republican presidents and two for Democrat presidents, held office from 38 to 42 months.

The Under Secretary for Food Safety chairs the U.S. Codex Steering Committee, which coordinates U.S. delegations to the Codex Alimentarius Commission for international food safety policy. A subcabinet position, the USDA food safety office is charged with oversight of the Food Safety and Inspection Services regulation of the nation’s supply of meat, poultry, and processed egg products.

The Under Secretary for Food Safety is selected from among individuals with specialized training or significant experience in food safety or public health programs. All five individuals who’ve held the top job have been well qualified and served with distinction. 

More often than not when the Under Secretary’s job has been vacant, there’s been some worthy bureaucrat with a deputy or acting title to carry on, but without the political clout that comes with a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation.   

That was, after all, why Congress established the position. It was to give food safety some clout or gravitas against all the sales, marketing and trade functionaries that USDA is so heavy with.

I suspect there is risk anytime there is no serving Under Secretary for Food Safety, but it’s gone unrecognized.

We were lucky that Brashears was confirmed when she was, just as the pandemic was declared. COVID-19 put the meat and poultry industries and their employees under unprecedented pressure. The Defense Production Act was used to keep meat counters from going as empty as the toilet paper aisle. FSIS establishments spent more than $1 billion to protect staff from the virus.

In researching why the Under Secretary for Food Safety post is so often vacant, it’s clear administration transitions play a role. I have a  modest suggestion for the incoming Biden Administration. Ask Brashears to remain on the  job until her successor named by President Biden is confirmed  the U.S. Senate.

It would be a great way for the Biden Administration to acknowledge that these lengthy vacancies do harm to food safety. It would also be a way of finding out who really is down for smooth transitions and for all I know, Brashears may ready to go back to Texas.

But this modest proposal has the potential to help with the transition part of this problem. Otherwise we’ll just have to  start the vacancy clock again.

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