By Steven J. Golightly, Ph.D, Director, Los Angeles County CSSD
Any transition is challenging – a new job, a new love interest, a new pet, or a new boss. This is especially challenging when that new boss is the President of the United States. In the federal government, when a new president is elected, rank and file civil servants have job protection thanks to the Civil Service Reform Act of 1883. Additionally, as a result of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 members of the Career Senior Executive Service (SES) remain in place as administrations change. However, those in ranks known as SES Political Appointees, also part of the SES, must submit resignations no later than the day of the inauguration of the new president.
Career SES employees fundamentally oversee the many Federal departments and agencies until new political appointees are in place. Some of the new political appointees will require Senate approval, and some will not. While in transition, the career SES staff are not authorized to implement new rules, regulations or policies. In many instances, they are treated with distrust by the new administration, and often viewed as being loyal to the prior administration – particularly when the prior administration was of a different political party. As a former career SES employee, we were admonished to avoid any political activity – nor express any personal political preference – at any time. Instead, we were in place to ensure impartiality, and specifically to reflect the public’s confidence relative to the impartiality of government as a whole.
Now, let’s talk about the actual process to appoint a new legion of political appointees. First, however, it is important to understand where child support fits into the federal hierarchy. As I write this, in early December, President-Elect Trump is in the process of vetting and announcing his picks for Cabinet positions. There are 15 Cabinet members, plus the Vice President. Those Cabinet members include the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Attorney General.
The Cabinet position most important to our work in child support is the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Within HHS there are 11 operating divisions, or op divs. The Administration for Children and Families, or ACF, is the op div where child support is housed. As with all operating divisions, the senior most person is the Assistant Secretary, and reports directly to the Secretary. Then there are offices within the operating divisions. There are 17 major offices within ACF, and the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) is one of those. Hence, the “Commissioner” of Child Support reports to the Assistant Secretary of ACF, who in turn reports to the HHS Secretary, who in turn reports to the President.
I have put quotation marks around Commissioner, because that title is not one that has legal or regulatory standing. In fact, it was simply made up during the Clinton Administration by then Assistant Secretary Olivia Golden as a concession to then OCSE Deputy Director of Child Support, Judge David Ross. Technically (by statute), the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families is the Director of OCSE. As the person responsible for day to day oversight of OCSE, Judge Ross did not like being referred to as the Deputy Director, so he asked Dr. Golden to rename the position “OCSE Commissioner.” A bit of trivia – the only true Commissioner within ACF is the Commissioner for the Administration for Children, Youth and Families – responsible for child welfare, Head Start and Runaway and Homeless Youth, etc. This position does require Senate approval. The OCSE “Commissioner” does not, but is a political SES appointee.
As I write this article, President-Elect Trump has indicated his intention to nominate Representative Tom Price (R-GA) to be HHS Secretary. Dr. Price, a member of Congress for 12 years, and an orthopedic surgeon, has been an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Given that repeal of Obamacare is a top priority for the incoming President, it is no surprise that Mr. Trump has selected Dr. Price to head HHS.
We can find no indication that Congressman Price has ever been involved in child support nor publicly spoken of his interest in, or opinions about, our program. All Cabinet nominations will go to the Republican controlled Senate, and few expect any dissention. The Democrats do not have enough votes to block a nomination.
Once the new HHS Secretary is confirmed, a process begins to select assistant secretaries – remember there are 11 operating divisions within HHS, as well as seven other offices requiring assistant secretaries – Administration, Policy & Evaluation, Legislation, Public Affairs, etc. Some of these are also Presidential nominations – with confirmation needed by the Senate. This process can take months, sometimes even years. Under the present administration, there has only been one confirmed ACF Assistant Secretary (Carmen Nazario), and many, many interim ones. Prior ACF Assistant Secretaries include Wade Horn in the Bush Administration, and Olivia Golden and Mary Jo Bane in the Clinton era.
Once an assistant secretary is in place, then other executive level positions within ACF are filled – including the Office of Family Assistance (TANF), and the Office of Child Support Enforcement. These actions (Secretary/Assistant Secretary/Agency Heads) do not have to be sequential, but typically are, with the Secretary in place first. During the current transition, following inauguration on January 20, 2017, Donna Bonar, currently the Deputy OCSE Commissioner (and a career SES) will oversee child support. Donna has acted in this capacity in the past.
I personally do not see child support anywhere near the top of the list of the thousands of appointments the president-elect has to consider. We will all continue to watch with tremendous interest who is being considered for the ACF Assistant Secretary position. Dr. Olivia Golden, now the Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), has accepted our invitation to speak at the CSDA Policy Forum in March. I anticipate that she may have some insight as to this process.
In the meantime, we must not be distracted by harbingers of doom and gloom. Our mission is to continue serving the thousands of children and families who count on us every day for help. Child support has evolved over the years to where it is today. I would guess that the program will continue to do so for many years and decades to come. Keep up the great work!
Dr. Steven Golightly is director of the Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department, the second largest locally administered child support program in the nation. He is a former career member of the Federal Senior Executive Service, and was the HHS/ACF Regional Administrator in Federal Region IV, based in Atlanta. Steven is immediate past president of the National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA), and a long standing board member of the California Child Support Directors Association.