Tuesday Marks Day 2,499 At A Leaderless ATF

ATF Director Nominee B. Todd Jones (Credit: Associated Press)

August 8, 2006 was an unremarkable, slow-news day in Washington. A high of 90, but not especially humid. President Bush had left town a few days earlier for his Crawford ranch – and Congress had split for its August recess even before that. The Nationals were mired in last place in the National League East. And, Talladega Nights: the Legend of Ricky Bobby had just overtaken Miami Vice as the top box office draw.

It was also the last day the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the agency charged with enforcing the nation’s gun laws, had a Director.

In the 2,499 days since Carl Truscott left his leadership post at ATF, a lot has happened:

  • A succession of interim and acting directors have followed – Edgar Domenech, Michael Sullivan, Ronnie Carter, Kenneth Melson, and B. Todd Jones (the current acting director and nominee to be full-time Director).
  • The gun lobby has added new restrictions in federal budgets on ATF’s ability to enforce gun laws – and made permanent ones that it had added earlier.
  • The “Fast and Furious” scandal broke in 2011 around a botched gun trafficking investigation in which ATF lost track of over 1000 firearms destined for the Mexican cartels. (The Department of Justice’s Inspector General found that leadership and oversight of the operation at ATF headquarters was “seriously deficient.”)
  • ATF agents Kimberly Place and John Francis Capano were killed in the line of duty.
  • Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown.
  • More than 80,000 Americans have been murdered with guns.

Why has the ATF not had a leader for almost seven years? By design.

As part of the reorganization of law enforcement agencies pursuant to the Homeland Security Act, ATF was moved from the Department of Treasury to the Department of Justice. Also in the Act was a little-noticed provision that would mean, going forward, the ATF Director position would require Senate confirmation. While adding a requirement for Senate confirmation for an agency head may sound like a “step up,” in ATF’s case, it has allowed a minority of gun-lobby-friendly Senators to use filibusters and other blocking tactics to prevent ATF from having a leader.

The consequences for ATF and the morale of its agents have been dramatic. A non-profit called the Partnership for Public Service conducts an annual survey of “The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.” Nine years ago, in 2004, ATF ranked 8th highest out of more than 200 agencies and departments. Today, ATF ranks 203rd out of 292 agencies and departments overall – and it’s the rating for “effective leadership” was 284 out of 292.

Today, B. Todd Jones, a United States Attorney and Marine Corps veteran, is finally getting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on his nomination to be ATF Director.

Perhaps his principal antagonist will be the ranking Republican on the committee, Senator Charles Grassley. Over the last two years, Grassley has lead the Senate’s investigations of Fast and Furious and complained repeatedly that the operation displayed a “passive leadership,” “poor management,” leadership “failures” – and yet no one has done more than Senator Grassley to ensure that the agency continues to operate without a leader.

Arkadi Gerney is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.