What Has Bush Done to the Government?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 24, 2007; 1:30 PM

The last two times the Pew Research Center asked people to describe President Bush in a single word, chief among the overwhelmingly negative responses was the word "incompetent."

What makes that particularly fascinating is that it's a realization that the public has reached pretty much on its own.

While there's certainly been spirited debate and extensive news coverage about the ideological merit (or lack thereof) of Bush's policies pretty much across the board, there's also a critical underlying issue: Whether those policies are being competently carried out by the people Bush has put in charge of the agencies, departments and branches of the armed forces responsible for their execution.

It's certainly hard to find anyone, even among Bush's most ardent supporters, who would argue that the war in Iraq has been carried out intelligently. As one example, there is ample evidence that many warnings from career bureaucrats about post-war challenges were blithely ignored by their political bosses.

Just this past week, stories about the unregulated conduct by employees of private security firms, a massive corruption investigation involving the Pentagon's war-zone procurement system, and yet another sudden ballooning of war costs make it clear that the competence issue in Iraq is anything but ancient history.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's tragically botched response to the catastrophe in New Orleans in 2005 briefly turned director Michael " heck of a job, Brownie" Brown into a poster-boy for incompetence, but didn't lead to any sort of rigorous administration-wide assessment.

The admission by top officials at the Department of Justice that they engaged in a systemic pattern of putting political hacks not just in the traditional appointed slots, but in senior career-level positions as well -- i.e., the places where the hard work of government traditionally gets done -- has apparently been written off as an isolated incident.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the president's public acts and statements get the most attention from the media. But it's well past time to ask ourselves: What has Bush done to our government?

Bush's two top advisers -- Vice President Cheney and just-departed political guru Karl Rove -- made little secret of their desire to have the wider federal bureaucracy serve their purposes. But just how much has the exertion of absolute White House political control, through a network of loyalists put in key positions, damaged government agencies' ability to accomplish the tasks the American people expect of them?

How many long-time senior career employees have been marginalized, micromanaged or driven out of government? How low have the standards dropped for senior-level appointments amid the need to find people who would be sufficiently loyal?

David E. Lewis is a political scientist at Princeton University and author of an upcoming book, The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance. Over on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, Lewis today raises some important questions the press should be asking about the federal government under Bush. Among them:

"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? . . .

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