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How badly has Bush damaged the federal government?

ASK THIS | September 24, 2007

A Princeton political scientist proposes questions that would help determine if this administration’s actions to politicize the bureaucracy have done serious damage to government competence.

By David E. Lewis

Q. Have Bush political appointees taken away hiring authority from senior-level career employees elsewhere besides the Department of Justice? Is there any evidence that those career hires have been made on a partisan basis? (A violation of federal law) 

Q. Are new hires to key career posts in any way demographically different than new hires in the past? (i.e. in terms of experience, ethnicity.) How are the new hires faring compared to new hires in the past?

Q. Are presidential loyalists being placed in jobs with direct influence over grants, contracts, the granting of licenses, etc? If so, was there a centrally directed effort to use these powers for the benefit of Bush’s reelection or the Republican Party?

Q. Is the Bush Administration engaging in a concerted effort to use appointed positions to credential young Republicans to run for office in the future or hold positions in a future Republican Administration?

The discoveries we are making about the extent of political influence in the Justice Department should make us wonder where else this type of politicizing behavior is occurring.

All presidents politicize to some extent -- in different places. The place where politicization is most likely to occur is in the agencies where the policies being implemented are high on the president’s agenda and where the career bureaucracy has different views about policy than the president. This administration was certainly suspicious of the political leanings of career attorneys in DOJ, particularly in places like the Civil Rights Division. I would put the Department of Education (No Child Left Behind), the Environmental Protection Agency (Clear Skies), Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (prescription drug benefit), and the Social Security Administration (privatization) on the list of agencies the White House was likely to have treated like the Justice Department.

I would look for evidence of a set of activities related to political influence in the bureaucracy that all seem to go together. These include the addition of extra political appointees on top of existing career civil service employees; the practice of placing loyalists in important bureaucratic posts formerly held by career professionals; involving civil servants in political fights; making appointment and promotion decisions in the civil service on the basis of political attitudes; freezing out or transferring long time career professionals.

Another reason why politicization occurs is raw politics. All presidents must satisfy demands for patronage and feel immense pressure to use the resources of the presidency to appease party factions, shore up areas of electoral weakness, and use the delivery or promises of appointed positions as a form of political capital. One of the interesting things about this administration's approach to personnel was the extent of former White House senior adviser Karl Rove's involvement. I would like to know how much Rove was directing personnel choices and for what ends (electoral gain? to further a conservative agenda? etc.) Was he consciously pushing his people into positions where they had control over licenses, grants, contracts so that they could distribute these goods in a partisan manner?

Has this administration consciously recruited young Republicans to credential them for future administrations or elected office in their home district or state? There is nothing wrong with this practice per se but it is something we should know about because it can have huge repercussions for electoral politics in the future. Will this be one way the Bush White House establishes a lasting legacy? If you recruit a bunch of energetic young Republicans from different regions, non-traditional schools, and backgrounds that would not normally give you entree into high-profile public sector jobs, you can have a huge impact on electoral politics 8-10 years down the road and the next Republican Administration.

The types of people we hear of being hired by this administration raises the obvious question of what they look like compared to the rest of government and the types of people brought in by other presidents. In addition to the standard demographic characteristics it would be interesting to focus on specific categories of employees such as government lawyers and where they get law degrees from. Has the average ranking of the law schools gone down? Are there regional differences? How many lawyers were hired from non-accredited law schools?

Finally, is there a competence gap developing? Have this administration’s actions to politicize the bureaucracy in order to get control of the bureaucracy and satisfy patronage demands done serious damage to government competence? My research shows that politicization hurts performance. Apart from the competence gap between new hires and those departing, politicization of the bureaucracy creates systematic management problems that hurt the agencies more generally. It makes it difficult for agencies to recruit and retain high-quality civil servants; it reduces incentives for careerists to develop expertise; and it leads to increased management turnover—three factors that can hurt performance even under the best of conditions.


Journalists are welcome to download portions of the manuscript of my upcoming book, "The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance," (Princeton University Press) from my Web site. The book is password protected but the password is "president". I would recommend chapter 6, the chapter on FEMA. For good background, reporters might like the second part of the second chapter which describes the federal personnel system and the mechanics of how politicization occurs.

Incompetence Watch
Dan Froomkin kicks off a hunt on washingtonpost.com for incompetence caused by Bush's politicization of the federal bureaucracy.

Do Political Appointees Make Worse Bureaucrats?”
Lewis's forthcoming article in the Journal of Politics. Short answer: Yes.

Politicization and Federal Management Performance: Evidence from Surveys of Federal Employees
A paper, co-authored by Lewis, which finds that "agencies administered by appointed executives get systematically lower evaluations than agencies run by managers drawn from the civil service even when controlling for a host of potentially confounding factors."

Michael Brown as wake-up call to journalists
Lewis writes for NiemanWatchdog.org that FEMA is not the only government department crippled by incompetent political appointees.

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