Until 2006, ATF was headed by a director appointed by the president, but not requiring confirmation by the Senate. This limited both the Bureau’s clout and its accountability. But at least the Bureau had directors who were officially in place and could set and carry out policies. In 2005, however, in response to pressure from the Republican majority in the House, and with the strong support of the NRA and outside firearms-rights organizations, a law was signed by President Bush making the ATF director subject to Senate confirmation. This move was designed to both boost the Bureau’s bureaucratic clout and, more important, ensure a greater degree of control and accountability by subjecting the director to the public and political process of Senate confirmation.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way. Since the confirmation law went into effect in 2006, not a single name has been submitted officially to the Senate by Presidents Bush or Obama for confirmation to head ATF. The Bureau, with more than 5,000 employees (nearly half of them Special Agents) and a budget of $1.152 billion, thus has been headed – not really led – by a succession of “Acting” directors; sometimes by men shuttling between another full-time job and the ATF gig.
An agency without a full-time, confirmed director at the helm is doomed in the bureaucratic-driven world of the federal government to remain an agency adrift and lacking the clout or direction to implement clear, long-term policies.
It is therefore not surprising that Fast and Furious, so poorly conceived and carried out, occurred in this environment. In fact, the question really was not if such a debacle would occur, but when.
And still, neither the Republicans in control of the House nor the Democrats similarly situated in the senior body are pressing Obama to nominate a permanent ATF director; just as neither did during the previous administration. And, neither the current nor the immediate past resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has cared enough to expend any political capital to secure confirmation of a permanent director.
Inside ATF, considering the two very different responsibilities within its jurisdiction -- Special Agents to enforce the nation’s criminal firearms laws, and civil Investigators to ensure compliance by firearms dealers with the myriad and confusing firearms regulations – the Bureau’s operations remain as schizophrenic as ever.
The Inspector General Report, and the resulting – and presumably continuing – disciplinary actions taken in response thereto, will dampen what little interest there might have been to get a real handle on ATF’s mission, operations and policies. This would at least provide clear direction and systemically reduce the chances for future scandals. It will be up to a new Congress and either a new or a re-invigorated second-term president, to exhibit the leadership and responsibility necessary to either resolve these long-simmering problems, or move to disband ATF and transfer its essential functions to other agencies.
Washington being in the state it is, however, few (including this author) are likely to hold their breath waiting for such an occurrence.