by Jeremy Young | 11/15/2008 03:00:00 AM
I've expended some serious pixelage around here trying to make one simple point: that having a victorious candidate involve defeated candidates or their appointees in his administration violates the bedrock principles of democracy. Today I'd like to address this issue from another angle -- by asking a simple question: what does it mean when we cast a vote?

Ask the Man on the Street this question, and he'll most likely respond that we're choosing who we want to put in office. Sorry to disappoint you, Man on the Street, but that's not functionally the case, not in our democracy or in any other. To prove my point, do a little thought experiment: try to remember the last time you really felt that the person you voted for was the best possible person for the job. Not just a good fit for the position, but the best possible fit. You probably can't. Neither can I; for instance, I think that of all the people I've ever heard of, my former dentist would make the best possible President of the United States. He's calm, he's collected, he's kind and gentle, he's wise, and he has an incredibly steady hand (useful when putting one's finger on the Nuke Button). Will I ever get the chance to cast a meaningful vote for him? Never, because he's not running. In some states I'm not even allowed to write his name on my ballot; in others, my vote will be counted as a generic write-in; in still others, it'll be counted by name. In every case, it'll be meaningless, as he stands zero chance of winning the election. Functionally speaking, virtually none of us can actually cast a vote for the person we want to see occupy a specific office.

Well, says the Man on the Street, then what we're really doing is choosing which candidate we prefer, of the ones actually running. Maybe that's the case in San Francisco, where instant runoff voting allows you to rank the candidates in order of preference, or in Norway, where proportional representation lets you cast a vote for a particular political party without worrying about which ones can win the most seats. But in the United States and other countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems, it's not that simple. Polls consistently show that ideological third-party candidates, such as Ralph Nader and the Libertarian nominees, would each draw 10-15% support nationwide if voters could pick the candidate they most liked or agreed with -- yet such candidates rarely achieve significant margins. Theoretically, an American voter can choose any candidate who's on the ballot; functiionally, most voters are forced to choose from the lesser of the two (or, in rare cases, three) dominant evils.

The prevalence of the "lesser-of-two-evils" choice -- and the fact that many voters feel uncomfortable voting for the ballot-qualified candidate they most agree with -- suggests a third possibility, one I agree with: casting a vote in the United States isn't choosing someone you like, it's opposing someone you dislike. That is, a vote isn't a vote for someone, it's a vote against someone. In fact, I argue that the right to vote against is the essential component of the right to vote, and therefore of democracy itself.

There's plenty of evidence to support this assertion. First, I'd cite numerous instances in which elections have been structured to have an exclusively negative character, and which don't consequently lose their democratic character. For instance, the ancient Athenians used a procedure called ostracism to settle important policy arguments by voting to expel the leader of one faction from the city for five or ten years. In 483 BCE, Athenian voters expressed their support for Themistocles' plan to build a navy and defend the city from attack by voting to ostracize Aristeides, who advocated a rival plan. Another negative-democracy system is used in many U.S. states today for the reelection of state judges. The judges, who are appointed by the Governor, are placed on the ballot every four years for an up-or-down vote. Voters don't have the opportunity to name a new judge, just to reject the old one, whereupon the Governor will appoint a new judge of his or her choosing. Despite the wholly-negative character of such votes, few would argue that they are undemocratic. We recognize them as having a fundamentally democratic cast, despite how unusual we find them.

But even in elections with positive alternatives, the ability to vote against the worst alternative is the most important part of the process. For instance, when Tom Paine railed against "taxation without representation," he wasn't seeking representatives in Parliament so he could levy some new tax on the British people or increase appropriations for the British navy. Paine might have wanted to do such things, but the fact that he couldn't didn't make the British system inherently undemocratic. What troubled Paine was his inability to vote against policies and politicians he felt were harming his interests: the Intolerable Acts and the government of Lord North which backed them with federal troops in the Port of Boston. Under the parliamentary system, of course, no one could vote against these things directly, but British citizens had the right to elect representatives who pledged to vote against them, and Paine wanted that right -- the right of voting against -- for himself, too.

For another example, let's look at statewide ballot propositions, such as Michigan's Proposal 2, which legalized medical marijuana. People who voted against Prop. 2 were obviously casting a negative vote, against a measure they felt would negatively impact their communities. Yet supporters of the proposal were also casting a fundamentally negative vote -- not against individual opponents of the bill, but against a state legislature that refused to pass a law permitting medical marijuana. True, no one lost a seat in the legislature by the passage of the bill, but it allowed Michiganders to nullify the opinion of their state representatives on one particular issue. That is, they were voting against the decision of their representatives on medical marijuana, just as Paine sought the right to vote against the decision of Parliament on colonial taxes.

One way or another, every vote we cast is a vote against -- a rejection of someone or something we disagree with. The essential component of our democracy is the right to reject or change a government we disagree with, not the right to elect or create a government we do agree with. Take away that right, and you have taken away democracy itself.

* * *

If we accept the premise that democracy is the right to vote against, then the appointment of defeated candidates to federal office by the victors looms as a serious challenge to our form of government. The worst form of this phenomenon is the appointment of defeated legislative candidates to executive-branch offices. President Bush committed this offense in 2000 when he appointed John Ashcroft and Spencer Abraham, two Senators who had just been rejected by voters, to his Cabinet. In these cases, the right of the voters to retire Abraham and Ashcroft from public office was completely nullified by the President. Ashcroft's case was particularly heinous because the voters had rejected him in favor of a recently deceased candidate, perhaps the ultimate form of voting against.

A second method of nullifying democracy is for an incoming President to retain political appointments made by the previous President, particularly if the two leaders come from different political parties. President Bush did this in one rather unimportant instance, by keeping Bill Clinton's Commerce Secretary, Norman Mineta, in his cabinet (as Secretary of Transportation). President Obama, if he makes good on his threat to retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will commit a much more serious violation of democracy. Since the American people are unable to vote directly against political appointees, their rejection of the sitting President and his party must be interpreted as a blanket rejection of all his or her appointments as well. The alternative, retaining individuals from a defeated Cabinet, negates the right of the voters to vote against these men and women. The same argument could be made, though with less force, against appointing any members of the defeated administration's party. If the voters had wanted these people in the Cabinet, would not they have voted for the same party instead of a different one?

The final way politicians can nullify the will of the voters is the "Team of Rivals" method -- appointing defeated opponents from the same party to a new administration. If Obama chooses to name Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, he will violate this principle. The key here is that the situation today is fundamentally different from what it was in Abraham Lincoln's day. When Lincoln appointed Senator William Seward to helm his team of rivals, Seward had been passed over by a national political convention, not by actual ordinary voters. In fact, he was quite popular with the voters in his home state of New York, and they regularly returned his party to the state assembly by overwhelming margins (Senators were chosen by state legislatures at that time). Today, the direct election of primary delegates by popular vote changes the nature of these contests. The consequence of knowing exactly where the voters stand regarding a defeated primary candidate is that subsequently appointing that candidate to state or federal office constitutes a rejection of the will of the voters, and is both immoral and undemocratic.

Executive branch appointments at both the federal and state levels are a tricky business, and most people agree that the President (or governor) needs to choose people with whom he or she is most comfortable. But in doing so, he or she should exclude those individuals who have been explicitly rejected by the voters in their most recent electoral contest. Considering these people for appointments, whether in the name of bipartisanship, "Team of Rivals," or any other rationale, explicitly negates the control voters have over their representation in a representative democracy. A government of, by, and for the people must allow those people to vote against individuals whom they deem unworthy of holding office, and it must respect their choices as inviolable.

And with that, I think I'm done with this subject (comments excepted, of course).



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Blogger Ahistoricality on 11/15/2008 10:56 AM:

the right of the voters to retire Abraham and Ashcroft from public office was completely nullified by the President.

No. The voters right to retire Abraham and Ashcroft from office was nullified by their elected representatives who confirmed the president's appointments despite the express wishes of their constituents. If we're going to talk about voter nullification, let's make sure all the blame gets apportioned. Also, not everyone votes: non-voters are surely guilty of something....

I'm much more open to the "team of rivals" approach than you are because I'm much less happy about the "winner take all" mentality. Clinton lost by a small margin: she wasn't voted out as much as Obama was voted in.

Heck, a quarter of the country still approves of the job Bush is doing as president: Obama's substantial but not overwhelming margin of victory shouldn't give him the right to completely obliterate the Bush legacy, if he can't convince one in four voters that it's justified.

I'm kidding, a little bit. What you're advocating is simple majoritarianism, but to understand "the will of the voters" in such a system requires a great deal more voter input than we allow. This is why we have special interest advocacy groups, so that people can continue to express their will through donations and activism, supplementing their ocassional obtuse voting records.


Anonymous Ralph Luker on 11/15/2008 12:09 PM:

The fact that I voted for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary for President does *not* mean that I think that Hillary Clinton is unworthy of holding public office. In fact, I rarely get a voting opportunity of such stark clarity.


Anonymous Maarja on 11/15/2008 1:48 PM:

Hi, Jeremy. I'm not taking a position on what the President-elect should do. I'm an Independent, as you know. So I simply want to share some exit poll numbers with you.

In the 2008 Presidential election, in terms of party affiliation, exit polls show that 39% of those voting identified themselves as Democrats, 32% as Republicans, and 29% as Independents. In terms of ideology, 22% identified themselves as Liberal, 34% as Conservative, and 44% as Moderate. Given the results of the election, President-elect Obama clearly won the votes of more than self-identified Democrats.

Interestingly, today's New York Times reports "Barack Obama won only 53% of the vote on Election Day, but he is getting a landslide greeting from the American public." The NYT reports in an article posted on its website ("High Hopes") that voters gave "Mr. Obama better grades for his conduct during the campaign than any presidential candidate since 1988. Seventy-five percent of the sample gave Mr. Obama a grade of A or B."

Interestingly, the poll shows significant changes in how Republicans and Independents view Obama in November as compared to their reactions in March of 2008. Where 37% of Republicans listed "angry" when asked how Obama made them feel in March, that number has slipped to 17% now. Where 21% of Republicans listed their reaction as "proud" when asked in March how Obama made them feel, that number has risen to 37% in November. The number for Independents was 39% proud when asked in March how Obama made them feel, in November the answer for proud is up to 68%. For Democrats, the proud numbers were 60% in March and 92% in November.

The changes suggest that Obama benefited from the perceptions people formed and the knowledge they felt they gained about him as he campaigned. How he chooses to govern will affect his poll numbers among all those groups going forward, of course.

The NYT reports that 80% of respondents in a Gallup poll thought Obama will "make a sincere effort to work with Republicans to find solutions." The numbers do suggest higher expectations for him going in than for many recent Presidents.

BTW, I've looked in frequently on the History News Network since about 2003. Setting aside anything he and his administration did, in looking back at comments posted there by readers, I think George Bush's supporters on that site did not do a good job in selling the incumbent to readers. Some gave off too much of a vibe of my way or the highway.

I found on HNN that the weakest posters didn't try to persuade, they just lambasted or excoriated other posters. I remember one supporter of President Bush who was about to embark on travel even threatened, probably just in jest but who knows, to stop by the house of a poster who identified himself as a liberal. That's not what the WH needed, for sure. Such posters were poor ambassadors for the President, in my view.

Perhaps that is a function of the self selecting sample that is drawn to such message boards in the first place. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out on message boards now that party control is about to change in the executive branch.



Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/15/2008 2:44 PM:

Ahistoricality, you're right to raise an anti-majoritarian argument, and I think that's an effective counter at least to my claim that bipartisan appointments are a bad idea. But there are plenty of qualified appointments of both parties who haven't actually gone before the voters and been rejected by them. Why can't presidents choose exclusively from those people?

Ralph, nor did my vote for Howard Dean in 2004 mean I thought Dick Gephardt or Wes Clark was unworthy of holding office. But it did for some people (as, in this election, my vote for Obama did for me), and I think that preserving their right to do that is the essence of the democratic process.

Maarja, interesting statistics, though I suspect what most people like about Obama (his conciliatory nature) is the biggest thing I dislike about him. As for the commentators, you're right for the most part, but didn't folks like Alonzo Hamby and Gil Troy do a pretty good job advocating for the administration?


Anonymous Maarja on 11/15/2008 3:18 PM:

Ah,actually, I said that the people *posting comments* on HNN largely did not do a good job as advocates. Gil Troy and Alonzo Hamby are bloggers on HNN. I was not referring to them (but will say that I like Troy's approach to discourse more than I do Hamby's). I was referring to the people who posted comments *in response* to main page or bloggers' essays. The ones who tried to feminize or infanticize critics as "mewling," or implied that anyone who voiced criticism of a sitting President was a traitor, and so forth. They would have done better saying to critics, "yeah, I see some of what bothers you, but here's the deal. I think blah blah blah." By leaving no wiggle room for opponents, they lost credibility through over reaching. (Compare that to the approach used by a David Brooks or a George Will.) Lots of interesting indirectly conveyed metamessages (and directly worded messages) there on HNN during 2003-2008 which for some readers, probably served the incumbent poorly.


Anonymous Maarja on 11/15/2008 3:25 PM:

Sorry for the typo, infanticize should read infantilize. There was a veteran who posted on HNN a couple of years ago who used to defend the administration and to sneer at other posters -- those who seemed to be liberals -- for "mewling." I thought that approach served the President poorly. At least to me, it didn't signal confidence. I don't think confident people need to rely on bluster but that's just me. Professor Deborah Tanen does a good job of explaining differing, even opposing, styles of discourse, in her many best selling books. What a speaker or writer means sometimes comes across differently to a recipient who is acculturated a different way. At any rate, I learn SO much from reading message boards, not just in terms of substance!


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/15/2008 3:35 PM:

Gotcha -- sorry for the confusion. Troy's approach appeals to me more than Hamby's as well, but then, I'm pretty sure Hamby's views are more conservative than Troy's, so it's easier for Troy to be more conciliatory with the left.


Anonymous Ralph Luker on 11/15/2008 5:46 PM:

So, Jeremy at 3:44 p.m., the intention of your vote should over-ride the intention of my vote? And, even, your intention of 2008 over-rides your intention of 2004? There's *nothing* in our electoral process that evaluates intentions and there probably shouldn't be.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/15/2008 6:15 PM:

But Ralph, this isn't about our electoral process, it's about making the appointment process honor the results of the electoral process. As far as possible, everyone's intentions should be honored, which means not appointing people specifically rejected by the voters.


Anonymous Maarja on 11/15/2008 7:29 PM:

I'm really not taking a position on what the Prez or any Prez should do. But I'd like to point out that there is an extra wrinkle here. There are some ticket splitters, especially among Independents (who make up a third of the voting public).

I know of a district where a Republican representative won re-election this year -- he has held his seat for a long time and has good support in his district -- but Obama took the majority of the county's vote and indeed won the state's electoral votes. This was not my district but one with which I am familiar.

Sometimes people like the job their rep or sen has been doing for their district or state but want someone from the opposing party as Prez. In some election years, there even have been people who have said that they want divided government. I have friends who have told me that in the past. This suggests that people have varying motivations for voting the way they do, it isn't always to ensure that a particular ideology prevails across the board.

What if someone decided to vote for a R representative or senator and a D at the Presidential level? Or vice versa. What if the incumbent rep or Sen lost but the Prez candidate won? What if the losing candidate had specific expertise in some areas and the Prez decided to name the losing candidate to a Cabinet level position in a show of bipartisanship?

In such cases, you can argue rejection by the voters but you can't argue for rejection by all the President's supporters. There would be people who voted both for the losing rep and the winning Prez, after all.

Although there is some correlation, not all votes for or against candidates across a ticket align exactly. In some districts, from what I've heard, it gets complicated.

Again, not taking a position here or how it should work or what the Prez should do, just pointing out the effect of ticket splitting on the rejection argument. While the outcome as a whole spells rejection, the individual choices do not always align across the board because there are election years where some voters like the way someone has been representing their district or just say they want divided government.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 11/15/2008 8:09 PM:

But there are plenty of qualified appointments of both parties who haven't actually gone before the voters and been rejected by them. Why can't presidents choose exclusively from those people?

Cabinet appointments sit on the cusp between politics and bureaucracy (don't get me wrong: bureaucracies have politics, but not public electoral issues): Cabinet Secretaries interact with Congress and with the public as well as being administrative leaders. I think there's some value in considering political veterans for some of the posts with mostly political portfolios (State, especially, and Chief of Staff) and in considering administrative veterans or experts for the more action-oriented posts (Treasury, HHS, Interior). Some could go either way (Defense is particularly tricky, I think), or, rather, require significant quantities of both qualities.

As I've said before, like you I prefer technocrats. But I'm a pragmatists, when I have to be.


Anonymous Ralph Luker on 11/15/2008 10:22 PM:

Jeremy, You apparently refuse to believe that, in voting for one candidate, some of us (me in 2008; *you* in 2004) did not reject other candidates. Absolutizing paper-thin majorities apes Rove's 50+1 and is a foolish way of governance. Take a look at what Bush/Rove governance has yielded.


Anonymous Maarja on 11/15/2008 10:49 PM:

For Ahistorically on the Chief of Staff (not a Cabinet level, Senate confirmed position, of course).

The scope of the Chief of Staff position differs from administration to administration. It depends on the incumbent and on the President he serves. It can have political aspects but it actually evolved from what initially was an Appointments Secretary position.

In modern times, the Chief of Staff ensures that the White House operates the way the President wishes but he is much more than an Appointments Secretary or gatekeeper. Depending on his background, the Chief of Staff can play more of a political and policy role or less of one.

Historians were surprised when the 1994 publication of H. R. (Bob) Haldeman's diary revealed the extent to which Nixon discussed some foreign and domestic policy issues with his Chief of Staff. I think most historians assumed before the publication of the diaries that he played more of a managerial and honest broker role rather than being a sounding board for Nixon.

The best Chiefs of Staff serve as managers, messengers and, when needed, as honest brokers -- internally within the White House, and externally, as regards needed information flowing to and from the departments and agencies and the Congress. They should ensure through various means, including in paper flow, use of the executive secretariat, physical contacts (internal and external visitors) and other means of communications, that the President is aware of all needed information and available options and proposed alternatives.

This can be very challenging as the demands on a President's time are enormous. Like many executives, Presidents may need varying amounts of down-time to recharge their batteries and just to think things through. Thinking time is critical. They have to be able to digest and consider the vast amounts of information on a broad range of issues that flow in to them in terms of oral and written briefings.

Presidents differ in how they absorb information and receive information on options, of course. Some, such as Nixon, preferred to read option papers and digest lengthy briefing papers. (Nixon was very well read; David Gergen, who worked for several administrations, once said Nixon would have made a good history professor.) Others, such as Eisenhower, preferred to have options debated orally in Cabinet meetings and similar settings. You have to tailor the set-up to the temperament and style of the chief executive.

A good chief of staff makes sure that things operate functionally, in management terms, and politically in a way that suits his boss. Sometimes they take the heat for a President. As Bob Haldeman (whom I met in the 1980s while I was an employee of the National Archives) once said, people often blamed him for putting a wall around Nixon. He took the blame. Bob once said that every President needed an SOB and that he was Nixon's SOB. But the system in the Nixon White House operated the way it did -- with careful choices in physical contacts and reliance of briefing papers -- because *Nixon* wanted it that way.

As to executive departments and agencies, while the heads are political appointees, they rely mostly on permanent civil servants. So they have to walk a tightrope, implementing a President's policy agenda but ensuring that the department or agency operates reasonably well in management terms. If things go too far out of whack, it can result in internal upheaval and even in leaks from disgruntled employees to the press. That's not what the White House wants, of course.

Maarja (historian and former NARA Nixon tapes archivist)


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/15/2008 11:24 PM:

Ralph, at the risk of repeating myself -- the issue isn't one of "absolutizing paper-thin majorities," but of upholding the voter's sacred right to vote against someone they don't like. If a voter knows that both McCain and Obama are likely to retain an official like Robert Gates, for instance, that voter's right to vote against Gates has been rescinded. If a voter can't count on the fact that a majority of John Ashcroft's constituents voting for someone else isn't going to keep Ashcroft from exercizing control over American justice, that voter's right to vote meaningfully against Ashcroft has been rescinded. Whether or not you or I voted with that mindset (and I did, in fact, wish to vote against Robert Gates) is utterly beside the point.

Maarja @ 8:29, it's a somewhat similar situation in my view. Keep in mind that I'm equally exercised by Bush appointing members of the same party who've been recently rejected by local voters. A ticket-splitter who voted for, say, Stabenow for Senate and Bush for President might reasonably expect that Bush will appoint a lot of Republicans to his administration, but he/she might also reasonably expect, I argue, that Bush wouldn't appoint the specific Republican (Spencer Abraham) s/he just retired from office by voting for Stabenow. In that respect, it wouldn't matter whether a Republican or a Democratic President appointed Abraham to the cabinet; the concern is that the will of local voters was nullified by the incoming President, no matter what the various partisan affiliations.

Ahistoricality, I think we need to break down your term "political" a bit. Certainly the job of the Secretary of State is "political" in that s/he deals primarily with political leaders; however, it is technical in that those leaders are predominantly from foreign countries, and the science of dealing with them can be learned through advance education and/or specialized experience. In the way I interpret the term "political," that is, dealing with politics and elections, I would say that no Cabinet-level position should be given to a political appointee; the political decisions should be made by the President, his advisors, and the various heads of political committees (for example, the DNC Chairman.


Anonymous Ralph Luker on 11/16/2008 6:42 AM:

Jeremy, Your "voter's sacred right" is nonsense, because a vote doesn't register "why" it is cast that way. It can't do that. Even if it could, your intention has to be weighed against the intentions of millions of other voters who may or may not share yours. You vote for or against a candidate and entrust her or him to make judgments with which you may, on the whole, agree. More than that you cannot ask. You keep talking about democratic right, but insisting on attributing *your* intention to all who voted the same way you did. There's *nothing* democratic about that.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 11/16/2008 11:23 AM:

If a voter can't count on the fact that a majority of John Ashcroft's constituents voting for someone else isn't going to keep Ashcroft from exercizing control over American justice, that voter's right to vote meaningfully against Ashcroft has been rescinded.

This is ridiculous: Cabinet posts are not put up to a vote.

Those Missourans who voted against Ashcroft for Senate expressed no meaningful opinion about Ashcroft as AG. Moreover, they did vote for Bush as President which, presumably, expresses approval of him as someone whose judgement about Cabinet appointments they trust (following your logic), so Bush's appointment of Ashcroft to AG is entirely in line with the will of the voters who clearly wanted Bush to wage war on the Constitution, etc.

Since everybody understands that Cabinet appointments are not made by the voters, one has to presume that voters are expressing confidence in the president-elect's ability to appropriately select people.

I'm done with this discussion, by the way.


Anonymous Ralph Luker on 11/16/2008 1:53 PM:

... to say nothing of the fact that, as Attorney General, Ashcroft will probably be best remembered for having resisted pressure from his sick bed to action that he considered to be unconstitutional abuse of executive authority.


Anonymous Maarja on 11/16/2008 4:35 PM:

Jeremy, you stated at that 12:24 a.m. that

"Ahistoricality, I think we need to break down your term "political" a bit. Certainly the job of the Secretary of State is "political" in that s/he deals primarily with political leaders; however, it is technical in that those leaders are predominantly from foreign countries, and the science of dealing with them can be learned through advance education and/or specialized experience. In the way I interpret the term "political," that is, dealing with politics and elections, I would say that no Cabinet-level position should be given to a political appointee; the political decisions should be made by the President, his advisors, and the various heads of political committees (for example, the DNC Chairman."

Just to clarify, the term "political appointee" has no bearing on whether or not the appointee has duties that are political. Indeed, Cabinet officials are there to carry out the President's policy agenda, not to act as political operatives. Their jobs are operational, not political. (That is not to say there are not some political aspects to them, as when they go out and give speeches saying "Thanks to President So-and-So, the American public benefited last year through action Z taken by Department Y." They want to make sure voters give him credit for the administration's accomplishments. But they have to be very careful not to cross certain lines. They cannot become involved in what are referred to as prohibited activities. Google "Lurita Doan" and the General Services Administration if you want to read about a controversy that arose during the Bush administration.)

The term political appointee actually links the appointee's tenure to the President's tenure. Of course, they can be asked to leave before he leaves office. Most such appointees serve at the pleasure of the President -- that phrase we heard so much during reporting of the firing of the U.S. Attorneys. In a sense, their powers are derivative. When the President loses power and leaves office, so do the political appointees.

In simplified terms, the government is made up of two basic categories of employees: Presidential and/or political appointees and civil service (career) employees. Civil service position are competitive and merit based. I'm career civil service, of course. The vast majority of federal government employees are career civil service. There are about 8,000 political appointees spread out throughout the agencies and departments.

To argue that Cabinet officials should not be "political appointees" is to say they should not be affected by changes in administration. They could then stay on for 35 years and counting, as I have. I don't think that's what you mean.

I entered the civil service in 1973, when Richard Nixon was President. I've continued in the civil service through the administrations of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II.

The terminology is confusing, admittedly. For example, most political appointees have operational duties. But there are a few political appointees whose duties center on politics. The White House has a Political Office, which at one point Karl Rove headed. But most political appointees are there to manage the departments and agencies and to carry out the President's policy agenda.

The Hatch Act actually forbids officials from acting in a purely and explicitly political manner while in charge of departmental or agency.

To ensure that officials act as the laws require, there are firewalls. Remember how Al Gore had to use different a telephone to make political fund raising calls than to make ones which involved his purely governmental role?

Regardless of rank, those officials, such as the President and Vice President who have dual roles, may not use taxpayer dollars (appropriated funds) to fund purely political activities. When the President travels, the White House counsel actually provides careful guidance on who picks up the tab. If he makes purely political speeches on a trip, political groups rather than taxpayers are supposed to pick up the tab. If a trip involves Presidential and political events, the expenditures are split accordingly.

That's as it should be. You're a taxpayer who votes Democratic, you shouldn't have to pay for President Bush's purely political travel. But as a taxpayer, the revenue you put in to the treasury does help pay for governmental operations and travel. Likewise, a Republican voter shouldn't have had to pay for President Clinton's travel to purely political events. You see how complicated things get once a candidate attains office, they have to start operating under all sorts of statutes which govern conduct.

Part of my job in working with the Nixon tapes was to identify and snip out for return to Nixon those portions of the tapes in which he was acting in a purely political capacity. Not easy to determine, of course. A President's constitutional, statutory activities sometimes are inextricably intertwined with his political interests. Nevertheless, the Nixon records statute required us to make the necessary fine distinctions called for by the SCOTUS decision in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services.

Regardless of rank or grade level, agency and departmental employees are supposed to keep in mind their stewardship obligations. That includes protecting their agencies from inappropriate political pressure. As a hypothetical, what if I still had been working at the National Archives in 2000, when that agency made one of its last releases of Nixon's tapes (disclosures have been on hold since 2003). It would have been unethical for a DNC official to come in to see me and to ask, "We're trying to undermine George W. Bush's campaign for President. Can you help us? Can you release those segments of the Nixon tapes in which Nixon met with or discussed his father, George H. W. Bush? We're trying to embarrass the Bush campaign."

It also would have been wrong for a member of the RNC to come see me during the 1980s and to say, "Can you guys slow walk or find excuses not to release any of the Nixon tapes? We really don't want anything to be released while George H. W. Bush is President. He was, after all, RNC chairman during Nixon's term."

Had anyone tried to do that, I would have rebuffed them. I would have understood my stewardship obligations to my agency, obligations which do not change from administration to administration. What Ralph describes below regarding Ashcroft's actions as AG also reflects stewardship obligations, although in that case the reported pressure was not political.

The number of political appointees varies in the executive branch. For an agency such as the National Archives, only the U.S. Archivist (Allen Weinstein) is a Presidential appointee requiring Senate confirmation.

By contrast, the Department of Justice lists numerous Presidential appointees, including all the U.S. Attorneys and some 12 or so additional positions, including the Attorney General. Check out the Plum Book at the Government Printing Office's website if you want to see the break down for various departments and agencies.

Apologies for going on so long, but I thought you might appreciate the insider perspective on this stuff.

Best regards,



Anonymous Maarja on 11/18/2008 5:50 AM:

This thread has petered out but I'd like to add one more point for the record. Political appointees sometimes become career appointees -- with all the attendant job protections -- in a process called burrowing. Today's Washington Post reports that

"Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts.

The transfer of political appointees into permanent federal positions, called "burrowing" by career officials, creates security for those employees, and at least initially will deprive the incoming Obama administration of the chance to install its preferred appointees in some key jobs.

Similar efforts are taking place at other agencies."

The article notes "Between March 1 and Nov. 3, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the Bush administration allowed 20 political appointees to become career civil servants. Six political appointees to the Senior Executive Service, the government's most prestigious and highly paid employees, have received approval to take career jobs at the same level. Fourteen other political, or "Schedule C," appointees have also been approved to take career jobs. One candidate was turned down by OPM and two were withdrawn by the submitting agency.

The personnel moves come as Bush administration officials are scrambling to cement in place policy and regulatory initiatives that touch on issues such as federal drinking-water standards, air quality at national parks, mountaintop mining and fisheries limits.

The practice of placing political appointees into permanent civil service posts before an administration ends is not new. In its last 12 months, the Clinton administration approved 47 such moves, including seven at the senior executive level. Federal employees with civil service status receive job protections that make it very difficult for managers to remove them."

If you are registered to read the online WaPo, look for the article today, "Administration Moves to Protect Key Appointees."




Blogger dancing_bear on 11/24/2008 2:21 PM:

Maarja brings up an important point, that bureaucratic sleight of hand can obstruct the popularly supported change of disastrous policies. And that brings me to my point about voting and democracy; it's not the process of choosing that is the key element in voting,it's the ability to effect change. I have sat out some elections, rather then give my tacit approval to the process by participating, because neither candidate was representative of my views, and in truth, both were inimical to my interests. If I could have voted for "None Of The Above", I would have done so. I deeply resent having to 'choose' between "lesser evils', and can not possibly construe this as 'democratic'. At least in Ancient Greece, there was the possibility of choosing a leader by direct nomination; most were chosen by lot, served their term as a civic duty, and upheld the public trust placed in them. There was not an entrenched political class that picked the candidates to be offered for public approval. In this country, voting was intentionally made ineffectual, so those who were vested with wealth and property would be assured of the maintainence of the status quo, and a small minority of the population could leverage their interests against the welfare of the vast majority. Think Electoral College. Closed Presidential 'Debates'. Public funding for 'qualified' ('Major' party) candidates. Voting was intended to be a crippled process from its' inception, as the "Founding Fathers" only wanted to give the semblance of choice to the recently freed, but non-property owning citizenry, who constituted a buffer between the wealthy elite and the majority of the abused and disenfranchised general population.