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Real Change Depends On Replacing Entrenched Party Operatives

Posted: 10/20/08 07:38 PM ET

There may be good reasons to vote the Republican ticket, but the hope that John McCain will bring change to Washington cannot be counted as one of them. Real change depends not only on promises made by the candidate but also on his willingness to replace entrenched party operatives with new appointees who will make things happen.

Shortly after the Senate confirmed my appointment in the Gerald R. Ford Administration, I was asked to attend a briefing at the White House with a handful of other new political appointees. We were told that we should think of ourselves as "sprinters" -- members of the president's team charged with getting his agenda done before his term ended.

Back then there were some six hundred Senate-confirmed leadership positions for implementing the administration's policies. According to United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions commonly known as "The Plum Book," there were 1,137 such Senate-confirmed positions at the beginning of the Bush administration in 2004. Historically, "Plum" jobs go to party faithfuls who are loyal to the president. These are the president's team -- non-career agents of change appointed without regard to civil service regulations.

In addition to Senate-confirmed positions, there is an army of other political appointees who are subject to noncompetitive appointment. The "Plum Book" lists over nine thousand official "Plum" jobs that are outside of the civil service.

In addition to the official "Plum" jobs, there are career positions that are theoretically protected from political influence but are filled by party ideologues anyway -- as shown, for example, by the controversial hiring and firing of US attorneys by Alberto Gonzales. There are probably tens of thousands of federal workers who are unofficially vetted for ideological loyalty. Also of significance among the president's team of change agents are a host of government contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater, the heads of which are also often party loyalists.

Executive branch appointments cover all functions of government ranging from the cabinet departments like the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security to over one hundred regulatory boards, commissions, and agencies. The president's appointees have direct control over all aspects of our governed life.

The president, of course, also appoints people who affect the direction of the Judicial Branch. This includes not only Supreme Court Justices but also lower-level justices such as lifetime appointments to the Federal District Court bench.

Achieving real change in government will require the replacement of tens of thousands of senior Bush officials by appointees who have a new shared vision for change. If Barack Obama is elected, I believe he would indeed set out to remove entrenched Republican appointees. And the new appointees would be expected to have real ideological differences from the Republicans they replace.

If John McCain is elected, I have no hope that real change will occur within the ranks of party loyalists who are running the government. This is for two reasons. First, it is not likely that a Republican administration will terminate the employment of large numbers of historically important Republican faithfuls below the Cabinet level. Second, if they are replaced, the ideological differences between them and their successors will not be significant enough to, in the aggregate, cause change in the direction of our government.

The Federal government is a massive organization, slowly plowing ahead like a huge ocean liner. Even incremental change will require thousands of tugboats pushing in a new direction from every nook and cranny of the government system. It will not happen if John McCain is elected president.