For White House, Hiring is Political

The New York Times

July 31, 2008, Washington, DC – On May 17, 2005, the White House’s political affairs office sent an e-mail message to agencies throughout the executive branch directing them to find jobs for 108 people on a list of “priority candidates” who had “loyally served the president.”

“We simply want to place as many of our Bush loyalists as possible,” the White House emphasized in a follow-up message, according to a little-noticed passage of a Justice Department report released Monday about politicization in the department’s hiring of civil-service prosecutors and immigration officials.

The report, the subject of a Senate oversight hearing Wednesday, provided a window into how the administration sought to install politically like-minded officials in positions of government responsibility, and how the efforts at times crossed customary or legal limits.

Andrew Rudalevige, an associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania who studies presidential power, said that while presidents of both parties over the last half-century had sought ways to impose greater political control over the federal bureaucracy, the Bush administration had gone further than any predecessor.

“The Bush administration is unprecedented in how systematic the politicization is and how it extends both across the wider organization chart and deep down within the bureaucracy,” Professor Rudalevige said. “They’ve been very consistent from Day 1 in learning the lessons of previous administrations and pushing those tactics to the limit.”

Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said there was nothing inappropriate or unusual about installing White House allies in politically appointed positions, and insisted that it had never been the administration’s policy to consider political affiliation when hiring career civil servants.

“I reject the presumption that we have been any more or less aggressive than any other administration in trying to execute our policies,” Mr. Fratto said.

The report released on Monday by Justice Department investigators said that the context of the May 17, 2005, message from the White House “made plain” that it was seeking politically appointed government jobs, for which it is legal to take politics into account. The report did not say who sent the message.

But the message also urged administration officials to “get creative” in finding the patronage positions — and some political appointees carried out their mission with particular zeal.

“We pledge 7 slots within 40 days and 40 nights. Let the games begin!” Jan Williams, then the White House’s liaison to the Justice Department, said in an e-mail message two days later.

Within a week, messages between Ms. Williams and the White House showed, she began trying to match the White House-vetted names of people who had been “helpful to the president” — like campaign volunteers — with openings for immigration judges, positions that are supposed to be filled using politically neutral, merit-based criteria.

Ms. Williams told the Justice Department inspector general that she had not realized that immigration judges were career jobs subject to Civil Service rules. Mr. Fratto said there was no evidence that White House officials realized that at the time, either.

The department’s response to the May 2005 e-mail message was not the only instance in which government agencies appeared to have taken a White House political directive in a more aggressive direction.

In 2005, the White House, in seminars to agency liaisons, recommended that they use Internet searches when vetting certain applicants to determine their views on Mr. Bush, abortion and other matters, the Justice Department report said.

But at the Justice Department, Ms. Williams’s successor, Monica M. Goodling, began using an expanded version of the search to screen the views of candidates for career positions on matters as far-ranging as homosexuality, gun rights and the Iran-contra scandal. The report also accuses Ms. Goodling of asking candidates for Civil Service jobs to fill out a form disclosing their political activities.

Ms. Goodling admitted in Congressional testimony last year that she had “crossed the line” in applying a political litmus test to career job candidates. Through her lawyer this week, she declined to be interviewed.

Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University, said the administration had fostered an atmosphere that encouraged blurring the line between politics and policy, as when Mr. Bush gave Karl Rove, his top political adviser, a policy-making role in the White House. That atmosphere, Professor Light said, increased the chances of scandal by over-eager political appointees who ended up embarrassing the president.

“Once you send this permissive agenda to agencies, you can’t control it,” Professor Light said. “You want them to toe the line, but they may innovate.”

For example, he noted, when Mr. Bush first took office, his top political aides, including Mr. Rove, began briefing political appointees in agencies throughout the executive branch about coming elections and how policy decisions might affect the outcome of crucial races, according to several news reports.

In January 2007, a deputy to Mr. Rove conducted such a briefing for top managers of the General Services Administration, which handles more than $50 billion in annual contracts. At the end of the briefing, according to a Congressional investigation, the chief of the agency, Lurita A. Doan, encouraged agency officials to think about helping “our candidates” in the next election.

The accusations against Ms. Doan, who later resigned under pressure, dovetailed with ones leveled by David Kuo, the former deputy director of Mr. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

In a 2006 book, Mr. Kuo wrote that the office used taxpayer money to host events in 20 areas where motivating religious voters could swing the outcome of important Congressional races.

And the inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that its secretary, Alphonso R. Jackson, had urged his staff to favor companies that were friendly to Mr. Bush when awarding contracts. Mr. Jackson resigned in the spring.

But nowhere have the charges of politicization been as intense as at the Justice Department, where the investigations into personnel practices began with the firing of nine United States attorneys in 2006.

The overlapping investigations have already led to the resignation of several top department officials, including Ms. Goodling and former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. And Democrats show no sign of easing up.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Justice Department reports had made clear that “the problems of injecting politics” into decisions that are supposed to be nonpartisan “are rooted deeper than just the actions of a handful of individuals.”

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted on party lines, 20 to 14, to recommend that Mr. Rove be cited for contempt for ignoring a subpoena and not appearing at a hearing to discuss the accusations of political interference by the White House into hiring practices at the Justice Department.

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