Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

October 6, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

The Bush Administration is a sewer of cronyism and graft. In the last few weeks we've seen distinguished horse-show judge Brown resign because he couldn't handle Katrina, David Safavian get indicted, and the nomination of a vet chosen to head women's health programs at the FDA (that's "vet" as in "animal doctor," by the way, not as in "veteran") withdrawn in a storm of controversy.

Yet Clueless George seems to still think his Teflon armor is intact (must be pretty good stuff, maybe he should send some to the troops in Iraq), at least enough to get away with nominating the niece of Joint Chiefs chair Richard Myers - who also just happens to have just married Chertoff's Chief of Staff, and just happens to be an old associate of Ken ("Excuse me, may I see that dress?") Starr - to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

We have good ol' Bushbuds from the awl bidness writing and "enforcing" energy regulations, extraction-industry pals "monitoring" conservation rules, and backslappers from the pharmaceutical industry tunneling a regular warren through the FDA.

Please, please, please, Auntie, tell me that the Democrats are going to put a stop to cronyism, and that America is going to wake up to the smelly mess that is the GOP, and pitch it out with the rest of the toxic waste!

Onaway, MI

Dear Greg,

While Democratic legislators Henry Waxman and Nancy Pelosi are certainly attempting to check the most harmful excesses of this ancient practice, Auntie has considerable doubts about their ability to garner the bipartisan support needed for success. I hope that their efforts draw more attention to the problem and induce more Americans to contact their representatives asking for action.

Let's start with the word "cronyism." It has a lot of negative connotations, and deservedly so. Mr. Bush and his associates are doing their best to illustrate the very worst sort of cronyism and its effects. Between no-bid contracts, the appointment of unqualified people to public service jobs, and using appointees to undermine the mission and function of the government agencies they ostensibly work for, they have demonstrated a remarkable glimpse of the kind of government America had prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883.

The Pendleton Act, passed after President Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed patronage-seeker, created America's professional civil service. While President Garfield's assassination provided the final push, America had been progressing toward a professional civil service for some time. New states entering the union, the War of 1812, an expanding economy, the Civil War and Reconstruction combined to illustrate the futility of the Founders' attempts to prevent the rise of a professional government class. The "spoils system," in which those who won election to office parceled out government jobs and contracts to their supporters, family, and friends, had become a shameful disgrace.

The Founders had good reason to fear a professional government class - by the time of the Revolution, the power of the English crown rested on the support of a comparatively small cabal of aristocratic and wealthy mercantile families who supplied the bulk of office holders from their own ranks and controlled access to government power and resources. Insulated within this blanket, the English government bureaucracy had become a ponderous, bloated trough for the perpetuation of elite wealth, increasingly incompetent and unresponsive to the broader needs of the nation. America's Founders hoped that a constant turnover based on elected officials choosing new office-holders frequently would prevent the entrenchment of such a bureaucracy, with its consequent funneling of resources into the pockets of a few.

After all, they reasoned, if the men of property who voted for the elected representatives were displeased by how those representatives appointed office holders, they could vote for someone else next time.

America was a much smaller place in the late 18th Century.

Liberals and conservatives alike agree that the establishment of an entrenched, unresponsive minority at the reins of government, unaccountable and with no incentive to produce anything but job security and ever-increasing benefits to themselves, is the worst possible way to meet the needs of the government for workers. But no one has yet invented a foolproof way to prevent it. While the civil service has done a good job of reining in the most blatant corruption, and greatly reduced the number of office holders grotesquely unqualified for their positions, it is far from ideal (as anyone who's ever stood in line to get 'help' from a government employee knows!)

It would be easy to say, "let's end cronyism by making all those jobs civil service, and requiring every contract to be put out for bid." But before we throw out this basin of dirty water labeled "cronyism," let's check to make sure we're not throwing anything valuable with it.

Cronyism is not an innately Republican failing, nor an innately Democratic flaw. It is merely a barnacle on the hull of power. Whoever holds power is vulnerable to the temptation to abuse it, and both Democrats and Republicans have done so. And both Democrats and Republicans have, at various times, worked vigorously for reform. With all this effort, why haven't we eliminated cronyism yet?

Because the flip side of cronyism looks very different from the ugly mess that abusers make. The flip side of cronyism allows an elected official to be more successful in implementing the programs they were elected to carry out. When an elected official can appoint people they know and trust (always assuming, of course, that those people are competent and qualified for the job) they can delegate more effectively. They can build a better team, and use their resources more strategically.

And anyone who has ever worked in an institution that has too broad and restrictive a policy on seeking competitive bids for goods and services understands the limitations on that process. A completely fair process is hideously expensive to maintain and operate. And it is woefully slow and clumsy. There are times when the only way to respond quickly in an emergency is for someone to pick up the phone and simply say "Send over 100 cases of doohickeys right now!"

If we are too rigid in our approach to eliminating cronyism, we will find ourselves with a government that resembles a Great Dane in an orange crate. It won't be able to move effectively, and it will be most unpleasant to deal with - even more unpleasant than it is now.

While Auntie believes Representatives Waxman and Pelosi are definitely on the right track in their attempts to examine the current mess and determine if there are any structural failures that can be addressed, I don't want a focus on the weaknesses of the system to keep us from focusing on who exploited those weaknesses, and why, and for what result.

It may never be possible to close all the loopholes and create a perfect system with no weaknesses. Nevertheless, the fact that a system has weaknesses should not be construed as a license to take advantage of them in the cause of greed and self-serving. By all means, if there are improvements that can be made, let us do so, at once. But if we cannot improve the system itself, let us see what we can do about keeping it from being abused, and imposing sanctions on those who abuse it. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Greg!

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