The Bush administration's House of Straw seems to be blowing apart, buffeted by alternating gusts of scandal and incompetence.
The tornado of disastrous headlines -- a Pentagon that can't take proper care of its wounded, a Justice Department that can't be trusted to follow the law or tell the truth to Congress, a top White House aide who lied to a grand jury-- has been so overpowering that the day-to-day outrages of life in the Bush administration tend get overlooked.
So it's worth pausing to pay attention to some recent events that similarly underscore the failings of this administration and illuminate one of their root causes: a contemptuous attitude toward government itself. These episodes illustrate the administration's fox-guarding-the-henhouse personnel plan, the disdain of its appointees for the laws they are sworn to enforce and their spoils-of-war attitude toward the government they are entrusted with overseeing:
· The president's amazing-even-for-this-crowd choice to oversee the federal family planning program, Eric Keroack, resigned after Medicaid officials in Massachusetts, where he had a private medical practice, questioned his billings. Keroack's suitability for the family planning post, in which he was responsible for overseeing the distribution of contraceptives to low-income women? He was director of a group that finds contraception "demeaning to women" and won't distribute it -- even to married women.
· President Bush nominated Michael Baroody, a top official at the National Association of Manufacturers, to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- the agency charged with protecting consumers against the dangerous products of, yes, manufacturers.
Perhaps Baroody would be a great chairman, but he's spent most of the past two decades looking out for the interests of manufacturers, not consumers. The manufacturers association recently pressed the CPSC to relax its rules about when manufacturers must report incidents of defective products. (It did.) The group argued, again successfully, against a petition to require makers of cribs, strollers and similar items to include registration cards with their products to be able to help notify consumers in a recall.
· The Interior Department inspector general reported that Julie MacDonald, the official who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service but who has no academic background in biology, overrode the recommendations of agency scientists about how to protect endangered species. MacDonald also shared internal documents with industry officials and groups that lobby for weakened environmental protections, not to mention an online gaming buddy, the IG found.
An Interior lawyer called MacDonald's involvement in one endangered species matter "the most brazen case of political meddling" he had seen in more than 20 years in government. Nor, it seems, is such politicization limited to MacDonald. "Policy trumps science within the Assistant Secretary's corridor on many occasions," another department lawyer told the IG.
· J. Steven Griles, a coal lobbyist who became the No. 2 official at the Interior Department (in other words, his job description didn't much change), pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his relationship with lobbyist/felon Jack Abramoff. Griles's then-girlfriend introduced him to Abramoff and ran a lobbying group that received $500,000 in Abramoff-generated funds; in turn, Abramoff sought and received Griles's help on client matters.
· Griles's new significant other, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, who helped him fend off ethics charges when they both worked at Interior, resigned as head of the Justice Department's environmental section. Wooldridge and Griles bought a $1 million beach house with the top lobbyist for the oil company ConocoPhillips; then Wooldridge -- supposedly with the blessing of ethics officials -- signed off on a move to ease up on anti-pollution requirements imposed on ConocoPhillips as part of a settlement.
· Lurita Doan, a GOP mega-donor turned head of the General Services Administration, attended a luncheon on agency premises at which Scott Jennings, a top aide to Karl Rove, briefed political appointees on GOP targets for the 2008 election. According to six people present, Doan asked GSA employees how they could "help 'our candidates' in the next elections." Doan, displaying an Alberto Gonzales-like memory, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week that she had "absolutely" no recollection of that statement.
It's wrong to paint with too broad a brush here: Most administration officials are decent, honest and hardworking; the Clinton administration, like others before it, had its share of scoundrels and hacks. But there is something in the "loyal Bushies" mind-set of this administration and its fundamental scorn for government that contributes to this arrogant misbehavior.
If your faith is more in the operations of the private sector than in the capacity of government, if you have scant commitment to the laws you are pledged to enforce, if you see government less as a trust to be administered than a force to be used for the benefit of political and ideological allies, then this kind of behavior is the inevitable result.
In short, if you identify so completely with the foxes, it's no wonder that you end up with a henhouse that is so thoroughly, tragically trashed.