Worst Week in Washington?

MMS director Elizabeth Birnbaum took the hit

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By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, May 30, 2010

It's an unofficial rule of official Washington: When something goes wrong with an arm of the government, someone you have never heard of must be sacrificed to show the press corps that Action Is Being Taken.

Meet Elizabeth Birnbaum.

Until Thursday, she was the little-known director of a little-known bureau within the Interior Department known as the Minerals Management Service. The MMS is tasked with overseeing "the nation's natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf," according to its mission statement.

By dint of that role, Birnbaum was the government's top oil regulator, and given the environmental disaster surrounding the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, hers was the head that had to roll.

In typical Washington fashion, however, it wasn't clear whether she jumped or was pushed. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- whose own job, President Obama said at a news conference Thursday, is safe -- praised Birnbaum as a "strong and effective person and leader" and said she resigned on her own.

Or not. White House officials were quick to note that she had been forced out of the post -- although she was given the option to work somewhere else in the administration and turned it down.

Regardless, Birnbaum became the first sacrificial lamb for an administration desperately working to regain control of the political narrative of the oil spill.

Compared with Birnbaum, Worst Week contenders such as D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray (he cut funds for the city's planned streetcar program, then put them back following a public outcry) and Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (he was slapped with a $10 million paternity suit) pale in comparison.

Elizabeth Birnbaum, because Obama was having a bad week, you had to have the Worst Week in Washington. Congrats, or something.

Have a candidate for the Worst Week in Washington? E-mail chris.cillizza@wpost.com with your nominees.

See who had the Worst Week last week


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