What the heck does Treasury do?

Barack Obama hasn’t nominated 17 of 18 positions at Treasury needing Senate confirmation after more than two months on the job.  The Financial Stability Oversight Board (FINSOB) has yet to meet during his administration despite a legal requirement to do so on at least a monthly basis.  Politico now reports that President Obama’s vaunted Presidential Economic Recovery Advisory Board has yet to meet since its inception in early February:

Six weeks after President Barack Obama appointed a blue-ribbon panel to help him dig America out of its economic crisis, the board has yet to hold an official public meeting.

The White House initially said that the 16-member Presidential Economic Recovery Advisory Board, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, would meet “every few weeks.” Last month, a spokesperson told POLITICO the group would meet monthly. And more recently, the White House said the high-powered board, set up to address what Obama has called the worst economic emergency since the Great Depression, would gather only about four times a year, with the next session due in “late spring.”

But comments from board members and Obama himself indicate that some members of the panel are meeting, in smaller gatherings that have not been announced or opened to the public. And that raises the question of whether an administration that prides itself on openness and transparency is in fact finding it more convenient to conduct public business in private.

Now, the administration finds itself in a Catch-22: It does not want to say that the president’s economic panel, announced amid much fanfare, is not meeting during the worst economic crisis in generations. But if it is meeting, where’s the announcement, the agenda, the minutes? In short, where’s the sunshine?

Josh Gerstein may have left one option out of this.  The Obama administration could be conducting its business in private, reneging yet again on its promise of openness and transparency in governance.  It could also not be governing at all.

As I wrote when discussing the lack of nominations flowing from the White House, staffing is one primary responsibility of any executive.  The focus of staffing demonstrates priorites.  Obama told 60 Minutes last night how much he needed to focus on the economy, but all of the staffing effort taking place has gone into other areas: Womens and Girls Council, an undersecretary in charge of culture, and so on. Without a properly staffed Treasury, Obama and the administration won’t get a handle on all the necessary data and have the required diversity of voices for the proper derivation of policies and solutions.

But even the few voices they have won’t matter if Obama doesn’t hold meetings with them.  Congress mandated the FINSOB meetings as a key part of oversight over the distribution of TARP funds, and the failure to hold those meetings and provide minutes keeps Congress and the American people in the dark.  The failure of this economic advisory panel to meet as promised doesn’t break laws but does show that the administration seems oddly detached from the crisis and unwilling to engage in public on it. And the poor performance on staffing Treasury makes it look as though Obama doesn’t have much focus on it at all.

If Obama doesn’t fill these positions and hold the necessary and legally required meetings, a more hostile Congress could start making the case for dereliction of duty.  Fortunately for Obama, he doesn’t have a hostile Congress, but if Democrats don’t start pushing him into action, he may face one in 2011.

Update: John at Verum Serum gets confirmation of sorts that FINSOB has held no meetings since January 15th.