Politicizing Government Service
April 26, 2007
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. These remarks were prepared for delivery Wednesday at a forum hosted by The Brookings Institution.
I don't think politics is a dirty word. (And, those of you who know me know that I am very knowledgeable when it comes to dirty words.) Politics is a vital and essential element of our political system—the vehicle by which we advance our governing principles and policies.
Believe me, I'm not naïve. President Clinton made me a top aide in the White House not because of my good looks or charm—and not because I was a top policy expert. No, I got to the White House the same way he did: through politics. I am not one who believes you can ever fully divorce politics from policy in a democracy. It would be like trying to do physics without math. Yet I've also always recognized that there is a balance; that we should never allow the basic functions and solemn responsibilities of government to be subjugated to or take a backseat to politics or party interests.
President Bush came to the White House with an entirely different understanding.
Not since the days of Watergate, when our judicial system and intelligence community were deployed by the White House in the service of partisan politics, have we seen such abuses. And in many ways, what we have seen from this administration is far more extensive than that scandal.
Partisan politics has infiltrated every level of our federal government—from scientific reports on global warming to emergency management services to the prosecutorial power of the federal government itself. Even the Iraq War—from our entry to the reconstruction—has been thoroughly politicized and manipulated.
Recently, even those who had become somewhat inured to the intense partisanship of this Administration were shocked by the political manipulation of our U.S. Attorneys. And we have just begun to feel the impact of this scandal. Just as Hurricane Katrina exposed the issue of incompetence, the U.S. Attorney scandal has placed a spotlight on the Administration's pattern of always placing the Republican Party's interests before the public interest. Now, the U.S. Attorney scandal will be to public corruption what Hurricane Katrina was to incompetence in the Bush Administration.
And the scandal has created a new context for viewing and evaluating scandals in the Bush Administration. Americans have learned just how the Bush Administration works and are discovering that under President Bush, no function of the federal government is free from the influence of politics.
And this is no accident. It's all by design. The incidents I will list today are not a laundry list of one offs or isolated cases of corruption. There is a common denominator. Instead of promoting solutions to our nation's broad challenges, the Bush Administration used all the levers of power to promote their party and its narrow interests.
Government: A Stepchild of the GOP
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Karl Rove, George W. Bush's political architect, often drew an analogy between that election and the election of 1896, in which adviser Mark Hanna joined forces with many of the plutocrats of that Gilded Age and ushered in a 35-year era of Republican dominance—dominance that didn't end until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Without a trace of reserve, George Bush and Karl Rove set out to recreate that earlier era of one-party rule. And they pursued their goal by inverting the very purpose of government.
Under this Administration, the federal government has become a stepchild of the Republican Party. And in promoting its partisan interests, absolutely nothing is out of bounds—from our national security to our justice system and everything in between—places that in past Administrations were off limits to political influence.
Principals and supporters of the Bush Administration have taken to attributing its myriad failures to mere incompetence. This is an ironic defense for an Administration that once touted President Bush as the first MBA President and boasted about a cabinet filled with CEOs.
In his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales denied politics was involved in his firing of eight U.S. Attorneys. Instead, he suggested that the dismissals were just “poorly handled” or a PR failure.
The Attorney General could offer no coherent explanation for the fiasco, because to do so would unveil the guiding principle at the core of this White House—insinuating partisan politics into every aspect of government and bringing politics into what used to be a political-free zone—the Justice Department.
Even today, after three months of interviews and investigations and public discussion we still do not know who drafted the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired. We have been left with only three logical explanations for their dismissal:
1) The names of 93 U.S. Attorneys were thrown in a hat and eight were selected at random; or
2) The eight U.S. Attorneys were incompetent, a notion that has been dismissed by the Justice Department's own rankings; or
3) A White House fearful of public corruption cases further weakening their hold on power concluded that attorneys leading public corruption cases were not “loyal Bushies” and had to go.
They had a plan. They told us what they were going to do. They carried it out. And now America is paying the price.
From the very beginning, the Bush Administration has seeded the government with highly partisan appointees—people more interested in serving their party than serving the broader public interest.
Almost every senior Bush appointee to the EPA and Interior Department has come out of the very industries they regulate—and which generously fund the Republican Party. As Jim Hightower has noted, this Administration eliminated the middleman. The corporations don't have to lobby the government, because they are the government.
This cronyism transcends the regulatory agencies. The Bush Administration even laced FEMA with political operatives rather than people with experience handling emergencies.
The Warning Signs
There were early signs, not heeded, that this Administration would be driven by partisan politics, not public policy. In Ron Suskind's book The Price of Loyalty , former-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill complained that he couldn't interest anyone in policy discussions at the White House, because it was populated with political operatives rather than policy experts.
Even the President's highly touted faith-based initiative turned out to be a purely political play. The top two leaders of that new office both quit in frustration. John J. DiIulio Jr. left after being forced to work in a White House that he likened to “the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.” Former Deputy Director David Kuo later alleged that then-White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman knowingly participated in a scheme to use that government office to mobilize religious voters in 20, targeted congressional races—of which the Republicans won 19.
I've got to tell you—Tammany Hall had nothing on team Bush.
The Bush Administration has redefined the famous challenge of President Kennedy's inaugural address. Instead of “Ask not what your country can do for you,” it has become “Ask what your government can do for our party.”
It's true that Franklin Roosevelt started an era of Democratic domination of Washington that lasted into the 1960s. Roosevelt forged a lasting political coalition by conquering the economic blight of the Great Depression and uniting our country to win World War II. The Democratic Party reaped the political dividends of successfully confronting those national challenges.
In contrast, the Bush Administration has ignored the great challenges of our day. And for six years, the Legislative Branch was complicit in this scheme. Now our country is paying the price.
Politics And Cronyism In Iraq
Let's begin with the biggest issue facing our nation: the war in Iraq. We now know that when the CIA and other intelligence agencies failed to find evidence to justify the President's rationale for war, the Administration browbeat the CIA to tailor its intelligence. Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld even set up their own intelligence arm to provide the desired evidence.
And when former-ambassador Joseph Wilson cast doubt on the Administration's contention that Saddam was trying to obtain uranium in Niger for a nuclear weapon, Cheney's chief of staff, “Scooter” Libby, embarked on a smear campaign by leaking the identity of Wilson's wife, an undercover CIA officer.
Once the Iraq War was launched, we all knew how important the reconstruction would be to securing the peace. But politics extended to that country's reconstruction and the examples are truly shocking:
The person chosen to oversee Iraq's health care system was the community health director for the former Republican governor of Michigan. The man he replaced was a physician with a master's degree in public health and post-graduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and UC-Berkeley and taught at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health where he specialized in disaster response.
A 24 year-old with a background in commercial real estate was hired by the Authority to reopen and manage the Iraqi stock exchange.
The daughter of a prominent neoconservative was tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion annual budget.
Nothing was free from political influence.
This bias toward political appointees for key positions extended beyond Iraq to our own homeland security. At Mayor Giuliani's urging, President Bush nominated former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik as Secretary of Homeland Security. Bush's legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales, took charge of Kerik's vetting by the White House. Kerik was later convicted of taking gifts from a construction firm with ties to organized crime.
Politically connected individuals weren't the only beneficiaries of the Administration's Iraq operations. Before the invasion of Iraq, Halliburton's KBR subsidiary was granted a $7 billion classified contract to restore the country's oil fields. Halliburton then went on to overcharge the government for fuel imports by more than $100 million.
The Administration's coziness with corporations extends to the treatment of our injured veterans. Last year, a company called IAP Worldwide Services won a $120 million contract to privatize the management of Walter Reed. IAP is owned by a firm chaired by former Bush Treasury Secretary, John W. Snow, and has political ties to Congressman Jerry Lewis, the former Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Sold Out To Business
Everyone knows about Vice President Cheney's secret energy task force meetings with top executives from Exxon-Mobil, Conoco, Shell Oil and BP America. But science and sound policy have also taken a back seat to political considerations when it comes to the government's findings on global warming. The New York Times reported that when Philip Cooney served as chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, he removed or adjusted descriptions of scientific research to downplay links between emissions and global warming. Before joining the Bush Administration, Cooney worked for the American Petroleum Institute. After resigning his government post, he went to work for Exxon-Mobil.
From legislation to government reports to oversight, the energy industry, one of the GOPs largest donors got what they needed.
Even federal efforts to help students learn and afford college aren't off-limits to manipulation. The Washington Post recently reported that Matteo Fontana, a senior official in the Department of Education's financial-aid office owned about $100,000 worth of stock in a student loan company that has been subpoenaed by New York officials.
Last weekend, we learned of an investigation into President Bush's Reading First program and allegations that officials improperly profited when implementing the program and the case has now been referred to the Justice Department.
The Bush Administration memorably demonstrated its willingness to enrich those who helped carry out its political agenda. Seeking to build support among African-Americans for the No Child Left Behind law, the Administration paid Armstrong Williams $240,000 in taxpayer funds to promote the law on his nationally syndicated TV show.
An even more egregious misuse of public funds took place around the Administration's budget-busting Medicare prescription drug program. The non-partisan General Accounting Office concluded that the Department of Health and Human Services illegally spent federal money to produce videos made to look like news reports and distributed them to TV stations across the nation.
After the bill was passed it was revealed that the Administration purposely withheld information from Congress on the true cost of the prescription drug program. Richard S. Foster, Medicare's chief actuary for two Administrations said Bush Administration officials threatened to fire him if he disclosed that the drug plan would cost hundreds of billions more than what President Bush was telling Congress. In short, he would be fired if he did his job.
Perhaps the most thoroughly politicized bureau in the federal government is the General Services Administration, the mammoth agency charged with procuring supplies and managing federal properties. Its former chief of staff, David Safavian, was convicted of covering up his efforts to assist Jack Abramoff in acquiring two properties controlled by the GSA.
Safavian was also convicted of concealing facts about a lavish weeklong golf trip he took with Abramoff to Scotland and London—a trip that included Congressmen Bob Ney.
The current head of the GSA is Lurita Doan, a former government contractor, who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party. On January 26th of this year, Doan took part in a meeting at the GSA that included 40 regional administrators by videoconference. At this meeting, Karl Rove's deputy, J. Scott Jennings, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the 2006 elections. The Washington Post reported that one slide named 20 Democrats in Congress the Republicans will try to defeat in 2008. Another slide listed Republican Congressmen the party wants to protect.
According to the Post , Ms. Doan asked the assembled government employees how they could “help our candidates” in the next election.
Of course, it's illegal for political activity of this kind to occur in a federal office, involving federal employees on taxpayer time. At a House hearing last month, Ms. Doan claimed she couldn't recall the slide presentation or making the remarks that were attributed to her by various Republican appointees who were in attendance. Now, the Office of the Special Counsel is investigating this matter.
The Katrina Disaster
The most vivid example of this Administration's corruption—and the one that revealed its true cost to the American people—was the fumbling of the Katrina disaster. Under President Clinton, FEMA was run by James Lee Witt, a political appointee and a man with years of experience in disaster management. But the Bush Administration chose to staff that sensitive agency with unqualified political appointees.
Bush first appointed his 2000 campaign manager, Joseph Allbaugh, to run FEMA. Allbaugh hired his long-time friend, Michael Brown, as the agency's general counsel. Brown had no emergency management experience, having served as attorney for the International Arabian Horse Association. Allbaugh left in early-2003, and Bush named Michael Brown to replace him.
When the Gulf Coast was hit by the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, FEMA, one of the best agencies in the federal government and only four years after 9/11, was woefully unprepared to provide the needed assistance.
Now, millions of Americans are continuing to suffer terrible consequences and FEMA has left behind a striking legacy of mismanagement. Even FEMA's attempt to take modest action failed. After purchasing thousands of trailers for those displaced by the hurricane, the trailers continue to sit empty in Arkansas. FEMA had no plan to move the trailers to the communities where they were needed.
Now, there's nothing wrong with political appointees, per se. James Lee Witt, whom I mentioned before, was a political appointee and he was qualified to run FEMA. So was Alexander Hamilton as our nation's first Secretary of the Treasury. And Harold Ickes Senior, appointed by FDR, was a key architect of the New Deal that helped our nation emerge from the Great Depression.
Political appointees are not inherently corrupt. The difference is that these appointees were well qualified for their positions. And they put the welfare of the nation ahead of purely partisan interests. Judged by those criteria, few of this President's appointees would pass the test.
Politicization At Justice
We have all focused on the recent firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, but they didn't come out of the blue. There were a number of examples of political considerations overriding the work of Justice Department lawyers that should have woken us all up.
Indeed, the removal of U.S. Attorneys for political reasons is not a new occurrence. In 2002, a grand jury in Guam opened an investigation into Jack Abramoff's secret arrangement to block a bill threatening his clients in the U.S. Territories.
Just days later, the U.S. Attorney who launched that probe was demoted after more than a decade in office. A report by the Interior Department's Inspector General later concluded that Abramoff had actively lobbied for his dismissal and had a pipeline into the White House to accomplish that goal. And he wasn't shy about reaching out to the White House for help. While the White House initially told us Jack Abramoff only occasionally reached out to the West Wing, we later learned he contacted the White House 485 times.
You can see the beginnings of a scandal—a U.S. Attorney was removed who wasn't a “loyal Bushie.”
Sharon Y. Eubanks, the 22-year veteran career Justice Department lawyer who led Justice Department team that prosecuted a landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies, told the Washington Post that three political appointees in Attorney General Gonzales's office undermined the government's case in the final weeks of the 2005 trial, which cost the federal government billions of dollars.
Now we've learned that political considerations were behind the dismissal of eight U.S. Attorneys across the country, including some who were actively investigating Republican Members of Congress. Recently released emails between staff at the Justice Department and staff at the White House show that loyalty to President Bush and pressure from political figures led to the firings.
In the course of the ongoing congressional investigation, we have also learned that White House staffers, including Karl Rove, have used email addresses issued by the Republican National Committee. I have a simple question and it remains unanswered: why? Why did government officials need a political tool to conduct business each day? Of course, party computers are necessary for running a re-elect campaign. But are they still necessary two years later when the President had no campaign ahead of him? These email accounts were only necessary because politics was so deeply engrained in the administration's normal course of business. R.N.C. - U.S. Government … it is all one seamless political machine to them.
Hall Of Shame
The Administration would like the press and public to believe all of this corruption and cronyism consists of isolated instances and one-offs. But I ask you:
Michael Brown. Scooter Libby. Bernard Kerik. Halliburton. Philip Cooney. David Safavian. Lurita Doan. Matteo Fontana. Sue Ellen Wooldridge. Steven Griles. Alberto Gonzales. FEMA. Iraq intelligence. Iraq reconstruction.
This Hall of Shame is no accident and these are not isolated incidences. It's a pattern of political appointees who put partisan interests ahead of country—and were told to do so.
The good news is that this pattern of putting party first and country second has been brought into the light of day and can no longer be explained away as the product of errors or lapses in judgment by individuals. The implausible excuses are piling up, the explanations becoming harder and harder to believe and the truth more difficult to obscure. Americans now know that we are witnessing much more than just incompetent individuals at work. We are watching corruption in action.
This corruption might have continued unchecked, except for the last election—which brought a Democratic majority to Congress with subpoena power and a real seriousness about oversight and accountability. This Administration, and a complicit Congress, thought that the American people didn't care about the rampant corruption infecting their national government.
I'm proud that the Democratic-led House and Senate have passed the most sweeping ethics reforms since the Watergate era. It was the first step toward ending the culture of corruption and cleaning up Washington. But we have more work to do.
First, we must pass comprehensive lobbying reform legislation. The Senate has already taken action and the House is scheduled to vote on this bill before the Memorial Day Recess.
Next, we must extend lobbying and ethics reform to the executive branch by passing the Executive Branch Reform Act of 2007, a bill co-authored by Congressmen Henry Waxman and Tom Davis that I am proud to co-sponsor.
Finally, we must continue aggressive oversight efforts in Congress and hold government agencies accountable.
While we pursue these ideas—and others—to get politics and policy back into balance, ultimately we need leaders who see public service as a calling and not a profit center for themselves or their political allies. A Congress that takes its oversight responsibilities seriously is our best antidote to the unprecedented politicizing of government. Furthermore, the media must also continue to shine a bright light on government and keep our leaders honest and accountable. That vigorous oversight ought to extend to the next Administration, whether Democratic or Republican, and Congress.
The saddest legacy of the Bush Administration's six-year trail of cronyism and corruption is that it contributes to the public's already cynical view of government. This makes it even more difficult for those of us who believe that the purpose of government is to secure a better future for our country and all of its people. Repairing this sorry legacy is the first challenge our next President will face.