The politicization of government
Turns out that might have been the tip of the iceberg.
White House officials conducted 20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies covered by federal restrictions on partisan political activity, a White House spokesman and other administration officials said yesterday.
The previously undisclosed briefings were part of what now appears to be a regular effort in which the White House sent senior political officials to brief top appointees in government agencies on which seats Republican candidates might win or lose, and how the election outcomes could affect the success of administration policies, the officials said.
Informational briefings? Fine. Pressure, encouragement or collusion to use their positions to try to influence the outcome of particular races? Illegal.
In a sign of the seriousness of the questions, the agencies' responses are being coordinated:
By the end of yesterday afternoon, all of those describing the briefings on the record had adopted a uniform phrase in response to a reporter's inquiries: They were, each official said, "informational briefings about the political landscape."
And then there's this adorable little slip-up:
At the Department of Homeland Security, spokesman Russ Knocke at first said "there is no indication that any meeting on election targets, congressional districts or candidate support or assistance took place at the department." He then called back to alter that remark, saying he had no indication that such a meeting was held at department "offices." A department official said employees were briefed on "morale" but did not elaborate.
Translation: "We did talk about political use of government agencies, we just did it out of the office."
For now these are just another set of questions regarding the Bush administration's politicization of government functions. But they are credible questions deserving answers.
And regardless of what those answers turn out to be, this provides an excellent example of why such politicization is a bad idea. While the president and Congress set policy, the American people have to trust that government is working for everyone, regardless of political party. At a minimum, revelations like this call that trust into question, which in turn erodes faith in government and undermines government's legitimacy. A certain amount of political influence is unavoidable and even desirable: after all, you don't want unelected mandarins ignoring the wishes of our elected representatives. But once appointed their job is to serve the people. It's a lesson that was lost on Alberto Gonzales, and it appears he was not alone.
corruption, politics, midtopia