THE BLOG

Why Bush's Burrowing Appointees Are Bad, Despite What Slate Says

01/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Burrowing" is the term of art for political appointees digging their way into the federal bureaucracy as permanent civil servants after their administration is gone. As Bush's horror show is coming to a close, he keeps trying to take a few more swipes at the country, like Jason jumping through the plate glass window with his machete one more time. In addition to Bush's executive attacks on environment regulation and weakening consumer and other protections, there is real fear at the vast cohort of Bush's incompetent, crony appointees becoming permanent Washington fixtures. And so of course it was just a matter of time before some enterprising contrarian over at Slate decides to make the opposite case:

Senate Democrats called for a halt to the practice. Bloggers such as Matthew Yglesias (semi-seriously) suggested that "we'll have the top layer of the civil service filled with industry shills," while those at TPMMuckraker vowed to "see what we can find out."
Their concern is that civil-service protections, ostensibly designed to
insulate the bureaucracy from political influence, will instead
safeguard the political appointees of a deeply unpopular lame-duck
administration.

It's a valid concern--but in this case, it's misplaced. President-elect
Barack Obama will find it easier to replace the Oval Office draperies
than to replace officials who supposedly work for him. What the
executive branch needs is more patronage, not less.

Now, I love a good Slate article. Especially when the contrarian point is right. Even when it's off, it's always a good ride. But I have to say, this article seems to be making an argument against itself. Or maybe it isn't arguing the point it thinks it is. Either way, it's confusing. There is a condensed, informed history of the civil service, the Pendleton act which created it, and how it has become such a stubborn institution. Then we get the thesis that the calcified civil service is the problem, rather than feckless, ideological political appointees -- "In Praise of Patronage," as it's summed up in the article's title.

But this misses point of the left's rightful criticism of this round of burrowing. Sure, Obama's "change" would be more easily accomplished if more of the civil service was open to his political appointees, i.e. if he had more "patronage" at his disposal. But that doesn't mean patronage is a good idea. Nor is it relevant to the very real problem of Bush-era burrowing, as the thought of those political barnacles sealing themselves into the civil service is truly terrifying -- precisely because of the civil service institutional inertia outlined in the article. Bush's sole overarching administrative signature is utter incompetence on every level, sometimes driven by ideology, sometimes sheer mediocrity. Now some of that incompetence is building itself into our government. And so Slate's theory of patronage is, in this case, overwhelmed by its own example. You can't make a case against the crusty civil service and not worry about the layer of crust Bush is leaving behind.