20 September 2005

A new system is badly needed...

If there is one thing we have learned with the mess in Iraq and the aftermath of Katrina. Experience counts and political payback doesn't.

Long before Michael D. Brown became the poster boy for the overwhelmed and lightly qualified political appointee in Washington, there have been many others that have not lived up to their office.

Administrations of both political parties have long track records of appointing cronies who are out of their depth to key executive branch positions, only to see them disappoint or fail, sometimes spectacularly. What we have seen in the current administration takes this concept to unbelievable new heights in mismanagment.

"You try to help the hands that helped you," said Paul C. Light, a government professor at New York University.

The practice is especially common in the naming of U.S. ambassadors, many of whom earned their posts on the strength of their fundraising prowess. What may be different now, one veteran diplomat said, is that President Bush is putting these people in some key countries, such as Germany and Japan, instead of smaller, less-signifant European and Caribbean postings.

And so it was that in 2001, Bush nominated as ambassador to France, Howard H. Leach, a San Francisco financier who raised $100,000 for Bush's presidential bid but did not speak French. (The French noticed.)

There was Deborah Gore Dean, a Georgetown socialite and the niece of onetime Maryland GOP leader Louise Gore, who used her family and social connections to land a top staff job under then-Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 1993, she was convicted of funneling federal funds to GOP insiders as part of a $2 billion influence-peddling scandal at HUD. Sentenced to 21 months in prison, Dean, who became an antiques dealer, stayed out of jail through appeals until 2002, when she was resentenced to six months of home confinement.

Some analysts say the trend is worsening, as more appointees view a government post as an opportunity to build a résumé and cultivate ties that will serve them in the private sector. "No question about it," said Light, who has studied 40 years of interviews with political appointees. "We've gone from the 'we' generation of presidential appointees to the 'me' generation."

Senate scrutiny of many nominees is almost pro forma, especially these days when the Republicans control Congress. The attitude is "if the president wants them, the president has got to live with them," Katz said.

The phenomenon also owes to a personnel operation that often values political credentials over managerial ability.

"They are not an executive search firm; they are a political search firm," says one official. The fruits of such a process are not hard to see.

Take Christopher B. Burnham, a former investment banker and Bush fundraiser who this year was tapped to be undersecretary for the department of management at the United Nations. Burnham caused a stir in July when he said that, professionally, his "primary loyalty is to the United States." The United Nations quickly issued a "clarification on his behalf," saying that Burnham took an oath of loyalty to the United Nations and "understands that his professional obligation is to the United Nations and the Secretary-General."

Favored but under-credentialed appointees often are dispatched to "turkey farms," select corners of federal agencies where it is presumed they can do little harm, said political scientist Donald F. Kettl of the University of Pennsylvania. It does not always work out that way, as Brown's stint at FEMA illustrates.

"People who run for the presidency often put so much emphasis on the race that they forget to stop to ask themselves what they are going to do with the prize when they get it," Kettl said. "They forget that so much of the work of government is governing. But every once in a while, we have a case like this where really truly terrible things happen because of a lack of competence. And then we have to learn the lesson all over again that the game isn't over when the election is done."

So in an Administration that hates government and governing we have learned the hard way that they should not be governing this complex and complicated nation.


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