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Obama turning excitement into reform

Gary Caruso | Thursday, January 22, 2009

President Barack Obama’s inauguration was so momentous that it even excited Washington insiders with an uninterested “been there, done that” attitude. While many ethnic groups hailed the election as a triumph over their historical struggles for equality, federal employees hope for their freedom. Government workers of all political affiliations have already begun to blow the whistle on the Bush hiring practices and surveillance procedures. MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” featured an interview with a former National Security Administration employee who charged that his superiors illegally spied on ordinary Americans and explained how he avoided providing information to congress.

As promised in his inaugural speech, Obama has quickly begun to question if government works in his effort to remake America. The president reversed Bush procedures affecting government personnel and access to federal documents. However, it will be a daunting task to repair nearly a decade of ethically challenged, if not outright illegal, Bush policies.

Last year, the struggle to expose illegal political tampering centered around the calculated firings of eight Republican, Bush appointed U.S. Attorneys who disappointed Republican Senators and Representatives when directly contacted about ongoing criminal cases. While presidential appointees serve at the pleasure of the president – and this writer was appointed by President Clinton – impeding criminal procedures is not reason to remove loyal competent Republican prosecutors like one in Michigan who had studied to be a nun for eight years before turning to law.

While those outside the beltway may think that every administration acts similarly, they do not. In recent history – not the Kennedy or Johnson liberals nor the Reagan conservatives – has such an ideologically charged partisan group been appointed as those of George W. Bush. Not only did these appointees march lockstep to a rigid ideology, they broke laws to suit their political agendas.

Forewarnings existed to alerted us. They included issuing unauthorized wire taps, eliminating habeas corpus for “foreign combatants” and removing Senate confirmed replacement U.S. Attorneys through the Patriot Act. Bush’s signing statements pronounced that he could ignore the law he was signing. When congress changed to Democratic control, Bush issued an order mandating that all federal regulations be approved by his political appointees before they were published. Obama’s first presidential act was to temporarily suspend pending regulations.

It is no wonder that early in the Bush term, EPA appointees edited scientific global warming data and career civil rights lawyers at the Justice Department resigned when political appointees ignored their unbiased legal findings. This writer has firsthand knowledge of career civil servants, with whom I have spoken, who were illegally forced to proceed with projects or hiring matters based purely on political motives.

For example, government experts who submitted nonpartisan facts, economic indicators and statistical data watched their numbers changed by political appointees at the Social Security Administration, Commerce Department, FEMA and Justice Department. Also, Bush political appointees overseeing the Bureau of Economic Analysis routinely and blatantly changed monthly statistics before releasing them to the public whenever those economic growth rates contradicted Bush political talking points.

Early in the Bush term, when a rubber-stamp Republican congress ignored oversight of agencies, a senior Social Security Administration political appointee lied during a Government Accountability Office investigation. GAO caught this appointee – subsequently fired and immediately escorted from his office – ordering career employees to remove information from the SSA web site. Even after initially confronted, the appointee continued to instruct subordinates to remove additional information while pursuing a project that he knew was contrary to existing law.

While personally interviewing for career civil service positions, political appointees routinely administered an illegal political litmus test to me. At the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation in 2006 when asked my home state, a political appointee told me that he too was from Pennsylvania. His next statement, “I can’t stand Rick Santorum.”

When I replied that Santorum was an incumbent with good constituent services and should get reelected, the appointee did not ask about my qualifications, but continued with politics. He noted that since the PBGC was not a “policy shop,” it was okay to hire Democrats. The appointee said, “In fact, most of our employees here are Democrats.”

Obama’s administration and congress should invite career employees throughout the government to testify about past known illegalities. Such an open invitation with an e-mail trail of evidence will prove without doubt the pervading “don’t give a damn” mentality of the Bush political appointees. It is a sad day, even in light of the promise of this week’s inauguration, when just obeying the rule of law is a remake of America.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a

communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.