Searching for saints in Gomorrah — when just a good man or woman will do
I like a good joke as much as the next person. But tell the same joke over and over again and it loses its appeal. (Except in the case of The Aristocrats but that is another story for a different blog.) Which is why the Obama administration’s personnel follies, once divertingly ridiculous have now become ...
I like a good joke as much as the next person. But tell the same joke over and over again and it loses its appeal. (Except in the case of The Aristocrats but that is another story for a different blog.) Which is why the Obama administration's personnel follies, once divertingly ridiculous have now become tiresome and verging on dangerous.
I like a good joke as much as the next person. But tell the same joke over and over again and it loses its appeal. (Except in the case of The Aristocrats but that is another story for a different blog.) Which is why the Obama administration’s personnel follies, once divertingly ridiculous have now become tiresome and verging on dangerous.
It was always clear to anyone who has ever been in or near the government that the "no lobbyists" rule was just not going to fly. People who work as political appointees in Washington often have to earn a living when the other party is in office. However, distasteful you may find lobbying — and I am on record often pointing out this city’s deeply corrupt money culture — the rules are such that people whose specialty is public policy find themselves limited in their non-governmental career options and that many of those options involve lobbying or registering as a lobbyist. Furthermore, as any lobbyist for an NGO seeking cleaner skies or to protect the rights of children will tell you, not all lobbying actually is actually pernicious. Some of it is a healthy expression of what we call democracy-representing interests of Americans before their government.
Further, the issue is terribly blurry. If you are not technically a lobbyist but you are a leader in an organization that lobbies, aren’t you just as much a part of the money culture? What if your kids lobby (Joe Biden) or your spouse lobbies (Tom Daschle, or, full disclosure here, me)? How are lobbyists somehow less good than those who are lobbied (all former government officials) or those who accept their campaign contributions (all former government officials)?
But the reality is that no one expected this anti-lobbying stance to survive and it didn’t. And so appointees started to come in who lobbied (Ron Kirk at USTR, Bill Lynn at Defense, etc.) and rules were set that you could have lobbied but you couldn’t work in the area you lobbied (reasonable enough but also open to twisting in self-serving ways). And as the sanctimony about "high standards" (common in many administrations, of course, as we have learned in other areas of life, no one berates sin like a sinner) continued, the whole thing started feel even more impractical and hypocritical.
Then, the tax problems started to pop up. The standards here also shifted like desert sands. Tim Geithner’s we could overlook, Nancy Killefer’s much smaller transgressions we could not. Ron Kirk’s were ok, Tom Daschle’s not so much. At first, insiders buzzed how stupid it was that no one was really scrutinizing tax records. Now they buzz how ridiculous it is that minor indiscretions are disqualifying good people from assuming roles in which they are needed.
This last point is not a small one. In position after position, we had first choices from the Obama team that were excellent. (How much better would they have been had they been more focused on quality and less on appearances?) Gary Locke may end up being a terrific commerce secretary (although almost no one ever is) but Bill Richardson would have been better. (I’ll admit it. His apparent issues may turn out to have been in a different class from many other fallen nominees.) Daschle would have been terrific at HHS.
Then there are the fake controversies that always plague this process. Tim Geithner’s nominee for deputy secretary had to withdraw because she worked at the SEC and might have had to answer tough questions on SEC oversight of the Bernie Madoffs of this world. And Tim Geithner didn’t have the same problem after serving for six years as NY Fed Chairman? The whole economic team didn’t have similar problems from having overseen Clinton era financial rule revisions that opened the door to most of what went bad? Chas Freeman has been attacked because he worked for an organization that took money from the Saudis (of whom I feel compelled to repeatedly add, I am no fan). But who among the members of the administration from the non-profit world worked in places that did not take donations from people whose interests may not have aligned precisely with this administration or even the United States or who have an axe to grind? Wasn’t that the whole set of issues associated with the Clinton Global Initiative? But who gave money to Harvard when Larry Summers was President? Who gave money to Brookings or the Council on Foreign Relations or other think tanks when current officials or nominees still worked there? Who did business with the other nominees? And how is it that some associations are poisonous but that in the middle of the financial crisis there are people at high positions in the government who had senior roles at Citibank, Fannie Mae or AIG? (Frankly, consistent with my overall point, some of these people should be in and it’s ok their histories were overlooked and some, well, they just blow my mind.)
Almost everyone has a potential conflict of interest somewhere in their history just as many have nanny tax problems or unpaid parking tickets. Not a single one of our greatest leaders was without his or her peccadilloes. This will not be the first administration of sinless virgins because frankly, there ain’t none here in this town or anywhere. The key is not whether potential conflicts may have existed, it is how they are handled. Are they transparent enough? Are recusals undertaken where they should be? Was everything within the law or at least the bounds of what might be considered reasonable human error?
It’s tough enough to get people to accept the scrutiny of government jobs. At a time like this, we can ill afford to set standards of behavior that would leave senior positions only open to priests. Er…um…well you get my point. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. Pick the best people and set rules that make acting in a way that conflicts with the public interest impossible.
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