[[H I R I N G S]] * Political cronyism and patronage in the White House date back to the founding days of the American republic. But those practices reached their zenith during the late-19th-century Gilded Age, when Republicans, who maintained a hold on the presidency from 1860 until Democrat Grover Cleveland took office in 1885, swelled the federal government’s employment rolls with partisans in want of high-level positions. When there were no more plum jobs left, the GOP created myriad temporary positions, with holders subject to placement or replacement by Cabinet secretaries. And each officeholder was “encouraged” by the party to donate a portion of his salary--commonly 2 percent--into a Republican campaign treasury, for use in future races. That “spoils system” held sway until 1881, when President James A. Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed Republican office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau. Responding to public outrage, and in hopes of avoiding further such bloodshed, Congress promptly passed the Pendleton Act, which created what we know today as the civil service and required that most federal government positions be awarded on the basis of merit, not cronyism.
However, as Time magazine noted last week, there are still “more than 3,000 positions a President can fill without consideration for civil service rules. And [George W.] Bush has gone further than most Presidents to put political stalwarts in some of the most important government jobs you’ve never heard of, and to give them genuine power over the bureaucracy.” Bloomberg.com adds that, in fact, “the ranks of political appointees in the U.S. government have surged” by 15 percent under Bush, after having declined by 5 percent during President Bill Clinton’s second term.
This becomes important because of what seems to be a continuing pattern of plum positions within the Bush administration being handed to Republican partisans who aren’t obviously qualified to hold them. The poster boy for this corrupt practice is, of course, Michael Brown, who was appointed as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), despite the fact that he knew more about Arabian horses than he did about disaster response. Only after FEMA did such an abysmal job of riding to the rescue of people left homeless and hungry in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was Brown (whom Bush had initially praised for his efforts) finally elbowed out of the spotlight; he resigned in mid-September, though he remains on the government’s payroll. However, as the news media continue to make evident, this Bush custom does not stop with Brown, or even with David Safavian, who was the government’s principal procurement officer until he was arrested on September 19.
And now comes yet another example: Ellen Sauerbrey. A 68-year-old, NRA-supporting former Maryland lawmaker and talk-show host, and failed gubernatorial candidate, Sauerbrey is an ex-member of the Republican National Committee who served in 2000 as Bush’s campaign chairwoman in the Old Line State. She’s currently the U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. But Bush wants her, instead, as head of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, an agency boasting a $700 million annual budget and accountable for overseeing the U.S. government’s response to refugee crises brought on either by wars or natural disasters. This, even though she “has no direct experience mobilizing responses to humanitarian emergencies,” as the Los Angeles Times points out.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Sauerbrey’s nomination at the end of August should have sparked opposition from many of the folks who run non-governmental relief organizations. “This is a job that deals with one of the great moral issues of our time,” Joel R. Charny of Washington, D.C.-based Refugees International remarked to the Times. “This is not a position where you drop in a political hack.” Kathleen Newland, director of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank also headquartered in D.C., adds: “The refugee bureau has not been a spot for political appointments. This is not a position for on-the-job learning.” As the Times explains, previous chiefs of this State Department bureau--among them, Julia Taft, a Republican appointed by Clinton, and Sauerbrey’s immediate predecessor, Arthur E. “Gene” Dewey, a former U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees--had significantly greater background in refugee issues.
However, the White House seems to be sticking with Sauerbrey--in large part, perhaps, because she swallows Bush’s simple-minded applause line about how America’s destiny is to spread democracy worldwide. “An important focus of the position,” Healy states, “is not only dealing with the aftermath of conflict and displacement of persons, but the prevention of refugee situations. Ambassador Sauerbrey understands the importance of stability and democracy, and how they prevent the displacement of persons.”
No date has yet been set for a Senate hearing on Sauerbrey’s nomination. Bush probably hopes to put as much time between Brown’s disgrace and Sauerbrey’s Capitol Hill scrutiny as possible.