In January of 2005, top Justice Department officials began making plans to remove up to 20 percent of the nation’s U.S. attorneys—those deemed not to be “loyal Bushies,” in an apt phrase from a recently disclosed email by Kyle Sampson, then counselor to Attorney General John Ashcroft and subsequently chief of staff to his successor, Alberto Gonzales. Sampson himself was a loyal Bushie of the highest order (at least until he resigned in March, after a scandal erupted over the administration’s firing of eight federal prosecutors). Sampson had come to Washington to work for Utah Senator Orrin Hatch; he signed up with the Bush transition team following the 2000 election—reportedly recommended by Elizabeth Cheney, the vice president’s daughter, who was a law school classmate—and served as associate counsel to President George Bush before moving on to the Justice Department.
In short, Sampson was a political hack, a man who owes his government career entirely to his loyal soldiery in the army of the Republican Party. Such is the common trajectory of countless political appointees during the Bush years, the most notorious example being Michael Brown, who oversaw the destruction of New Orleans while director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown’s chief of staff at FEMA was the equally hapless Patrick Rhode, thirty-six, who had once been called upon to move large numbers of men and matériel—as deputy director of advance operations for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. The credentials of Claire Buchan, who in 2005 was named chief of staff at the Commerce Department, had been her work as a press flack at the Treasury Department under George H.W. Bush and at the White House under his son. The list goes on and on.
Bush’s defenders will argue that all prior presidents have filled political positions with hacks, and they will be correct up to a point. Hackery indeed dates to the early days of the Republic, and by the post–Civil War period a spoils system had become entrenched across the federal government. Confronted by scandals and corruption related to the practice, Congress in 1883 was finally compelled to pass the Pendleton Act, which created the modern civil service. This act dramatically reduced the appointment of hacks but never ended it. Where the Bush Administration has undeniably broken new ground is in its insistence that ideological purity and devotion to the president himself serve as a litmus test for appointees, and the rigor with which it has chosen and vetted candidates on only these grounds. “It’s fair enough for a Republican president to want a Republican to head the Treasury Department,” says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “What’s not fair is to put the question of loyalty ahead of whether the candidate knows anything about tax and budget policy.” Light was referring to the administration’s replacement of a competent but insufficiently loyal treasury secretary (Paul O’Neill) with an inept yes-man (John Snow).
Perhaps most insidious, the Bush team has packed uncredentialed loyalists on to government advisory panels, which ostensibly consist of impartial experts. William Miller, a professor at the University of New Mexico, was denied a spot on the National Institutes of Health advisory council on mental health after flunking an interview conducted by a White House official. The questions he faced had no relevance to Miller’s qualifications to serve on the council, but his negative replies to several queries—did he favor capital punishment for drug kingpins and oppose abortion, and had he voted for Bush?—apparently sank his nomination. William E. Howard III has said that a staff member of the Army Science Board told him he had been rejected as a member because vetters had discovered he was a political contributor to Senator John McCain. (It turned out that the contribution in question had been made by a man named William S. Howard.)
Such stories would be comical were it not for the real-life consequences wreaked by the Bush hacks. When it came time to staff the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which ruled Iraq for the first year after the U.S. invasion, the administration turned to a cadre of youthful, hard-line Republican ideologues (many recruited through the Heritage Foundation). These included Simone Ledeen—daughter of Michael Ledeen, the neoconservative guru and a leading advocate of the war—who, as a twenty-eight-year-old M.B.A., was named as an adviser for northern Iraq at the Ministry of Finance in Baghdad; Tom Foley, a leading Bush fund-raiser (and classmate of the president’s at Harvard Business School), who headed a CPA agency that was supposed to develop Iraq’s private sector; and his successor, Michael Fleischer, brother of former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who also had virtually no relevant background for the job he was given. Williamson Evers, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a zealous advocate for school vouchers, became the chief American adviser to Iraq’s minister of education.
Francesca Grifo, who runs a program that has documented numerous abuses by Bush appointees for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has found that political pressure has caused scientists at key agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, to avoid addressing controversial subjects like climate change, reproductive rights, or clean air because they know it will create problems with administration appointees. Of her own past as a program manager at the National Institutes of Health, Grifo says, “You were a civil servant, and you understood the mission of your agency, and you did your job. Administrations came and went, and, yes, things got tilted, but not in ways that impacted your core activities. Now there’s been a centralization of power within agencies, with political appointees involved in day-to-day operations in a way we’ve never seen in past administrations, Republican or Democratic. That has filtered down and become a part of the culture. It’s going to take a long time to turn around.”
How can we safeguard the civil service against future assault? To begin with, Congress should slash the number of presidential appointees, a figure that has grown from roughly 600 during the Kennedy Administration to 3,000 today—even as the overall size of the civil service has remained roughly the same. Rules need to be established to bar ideological litmus tests for government advisory panels and otherwise prevent them from being turned into weapons of political warfare. And, in general, government decision-making needs to be made more transparent. Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts has introduced an FDA reform bill that would force the agency to publish a “summary of the factual, scientific, and related issues considered during the approval process” for new drugs, as well as “the scientific rationale for the final decision.” It would also bar FDA officials from seeking “to censor, distort, or suppress any scientific research, analysis, opinion, or recommendation.” The Union of Concerned Scientists is currently seeking support for legislation that would apply similar rules at other key regulatory agencies.
Above all, we need laws that hinder future administrations from censoring the speech of experts and regulators within the federal government. In response to cases like that of James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who was warned that he would suffer “dire consequences” if he continued to voice opinions contrary to the administration’s views on global warming, the House passed a whistleblower-protection act in March that protects federal scientists from political meddling in their research and guarantees their right to speak out when such meddling occurs. Even if the Senate follows suit, it may take a new president to sign this act into law.