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At the same time, agencies have begun preparing for a new administration, including plans to temporarily install career employees in senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security during the transition. The White House also has taken the unusual step of ordering federal agencies to stop proposing regulations after Sunday -- meaning that new rules on issues including greenhouse gases and air-traveler protection are unlikely to be finalized before Bush leaves office.
In many ways, the work slowdown and higher appointee turnover is typical of any changing of the political guard in Washington. But the process now occurs over years rather than months, and experts say it threatens to hamper the important work of agencies, whether it be improving public health, promoting affordable housing, fighting crime or providing for the nation's security.
"You've got almost two years of pure chaos," said Paul C. Light, an expert on the federal bureaucracy at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. "The civil servants don't know who they're supposed to be talking to. They're receiving no direction. Congress isn't being talked to. The president isn't really doing anything. It's really a highly vulnerable time for running a government."
Many experts say it is an especially bad time for vacancies, with two wars being waged abroad and a housing crisis and slumping economy at home. David E. Lewis, an assistant professor at Princeton University who has just written a book on presidential appointments, noted that the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was exacerbated by high turnover and vacancies at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.