Nation Topics - Executive Branch
News and Features
Of the making of many books about Abraham Lincoln there is no end.
control access to the archives of the 9/11 Commission after it closes
up shop in August? The commission's records will go to the National
Most Americans take their system of government for granted, as if Moses himself had delivered the Constitution engraved on marble tablets.
Senate Democrats, who were so divided on the war and tax cuts, are
holding together impressively to stop the Worst of the Worst of
President Bush's judicial nominees.
When Washington gets back to business, there will be squawking over presidential appointments. Before the Christmas recess, GOPers were charging Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and the Democrats with slow-walking on George W. Bush's executive branch and judicial appointments. By year's end, about 70 percent of the top 500 major executive branch positions had been filled--which is not slam-dunk ammunition for the Republicans' anti-Daschle campaign. But the delays of two nominations in particular have irritated Republicans: Otto Reich, nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs; and Eugene Scalia, nominated to be Labor Department solicitor. Reich, an anti-Castro lobbyist, ran a State Department office during the Iran/contra affair that, according to a government investigation, "engaged in prohibited covert propaganda." Scalia, son of the Supreme Court Justice who greased Bush's slide into the White House, is a lawyer who represents management in labor disputes and is a harsh critic of ergonomics regulations; his nomination has drawn an outcry from labor. Senate Democrats, blocking the pair for reasons of policy and payback, have turned these two nominations into partisan controversies. But there are other nominees who warrant scrutiny.
§ Gerald Reynolds, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Department of Education. Reynolds, senior regulatory counsel at Kansas City Power and Light, is an avowed enemy of affirmative action. He has been affiliated with several conservative interest groups, including the Center for New Black Leadership and the Center for Equal Opportunity, which have waged war on affirmative action and minority set-asides. The position to which he was nominated enforces all discrimination laws covering the nation's public schools and universities. It also oversees Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs, including sports. Senator Ted Kennedy has raised "serious concerns" about Reynolds, and civil rights groups have assailed his views on affirmative action and his lack of education policy experience. "While we don't know the nominee's position on all of the issues that are important to Title IX, his very dogged opposition to affirmative action is very problematic for women and girls in education," says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.
§ Gaddi Vasquez, Director, Peace Corps. Vasquez, a prominent Latino GOP politico in California, resigned as Orange County supervisor in 1995, months after the county, having misled and defrauded buyers of more than $2.1 billion in risky municipal securities, filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history. After resigning, he became vice president of public affairs for Southern California Edison. In 2000 he donated $100,000 to the Republican Party. Senator Barbara Boxer, a liberal California Democrat, has endorsed Vasquez, and every Latino member of the California Assembly, Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter supporting his nomination. But a group of outraged former Peace Corps volunteers has been lobbying against Vasquez, arguing that he has no experience in international humanitarian affairs or managing a large agency and that this is not a job for a political hack.
§ Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary for Land Management, Department of the Interior. As a partner in a Montana law firm, Watson has represented mining companies yearning to dig up more and more federal land. Previously, she worked for the American Forest and Paper Group, and five years ago she represented a Montana business group battling an initiative requiring mining companies to remove carcinogens from their discharges. Industry groups have hailed her nomination; environmentalists have decried it. "She is a corporate lackey, but she will fit in this Administration like a hand in a glove," says Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center. According to Friends of the Earth, which has been campaigning against her, she represented Montana businesses (unsuccessfully) in a 1999 court case that challenged language in the state Constitution guaranteeing a clean and healthful environment.
§ Eve Slater, Assistant Secretary for Health, Department of Health and Human Services. Before tagging her for this post, the Bush Administration contemplated nominating Slater, senior vice president for clinical research at Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, to be FDA commissioner. That rankled Senator Kennedy, who protested, "You don't want the fox guarding the chicken coop." The FDA job didn't materialize for Slater, but at HHS she will still have to deal with former industry colleagues.
§ Janet Hale, Assistant Secretary for Management and Budget, Department of Health and Human Services. In the 1980s, as a senior official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hale was a second-tier figure in a HUD scandal that involved politically connected developers winning big-money contracts and favors from the department. The Wall Street Journal reported that while Hale held one of HUD's highest-ranking positions, she approved waivers of regulations that permitted the construction of a problematic project sought by the former law partner of HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce. Her predecessor quit rather than OK that deal. Hale initialed it and sent the politically wired contract ahead.
These nominations--most of which are for not-so-high-profile jobs--are unlikely to generate the sort of fire and thunder accompanying the Reich and Scalia tussles. But they add new details to the family portrait of a Bush Administration loaded with corporate-friendly and not-so-compassionate conservative appointees.
New recounts show that the wrong man is in the Oval Office.
On Day Two of the John Ashcroft hearings, Senator Pat Leahy--the Democrat temporarily chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee--asked George W. Bush's would-be Attorney General if he had blocked the nomination of businessman James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg because Hormel is gay. Ashcroft replied, "I did not." He had quashed the nomination, Ashcroft contended, because of "the totality of the record." Actually, at the time of the Hormel controversy, Ashcroft's remarks indicated that Hormel's sexual orientation was crucial to his decision ("He's been a leader in promoting a lifestyle.... And the kind of leadership he's exhibited there is likely to be offensive.") Leahy could have challenged the ex-senator's honesty. He could have demanded that Ashcroft cite a reason beyond "lifestyle" for his opposition. Leahy had Ashcroft in his sights, but he didn't pull the trigger.
That moment was telling. Despite the right-wing rhetoric that Democrats are bent on a so-called politics of personal destruction, Senate Democrats did not slam Ashcroft as hard as they could have. For example, they didn't query him about his meeting with a leader of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens to discuss whether Ashcroft could help an imprisoned CCC member accused of conspiring to murder an FBI agent. At the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Democrats permitted designated Interior Secretary Gale Norton to slip-slide through her confirmation hearing. When she testified that "there is beginning to be more of a consensus" that global warming is under way but that there is "still disagreement as to the causes and the long-term future" of global warming, no Democrat pounced on her for mischaracterizing the current consensus among scientists that global warming is human-induced and presents a threat.
For Ashcroft and Norton, the Democrats mounted hearings designed to slap the nominees but not to defeat them. Ted Kennedy, Chuck Schumer, Richard Durbin and Joe Biden did question Ashcroft sharply. The testimony of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White reinforced charges that Ashcroft--who had assailed White as "procriminal"--had waged a dishonest, intemperate and unfair campaign against this barrier-breaking African-American jurist. But overall, the Democrats weren't really gunning for Ashcroft or Norton--which can be seen as an indicator of how they intend to behave as the opposition.
It may be that their leaders decided that these were battles that could not be won, so why go all out? Senator Russell Feingold, a progressive, announced that as a matter of principle a President should be accorded his nominees. Several other Democrats--like the conservative Zell Miller--signaled that they would vote for Ashcroft, and Norton drew even less visible opposition. Clearly, some Democratic senators were wary of being tagged as underminers of the much-ballyhooed bipartisanship. The hard reality: With the Senate split 50-50, a single Democratic Senator can undo his or her party's position by threatening to bolt. Faced with these two way-out nominations, Senate Democrats--despite being pressed by key constituencies, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus--could not maintain a united opposition.
After the Ashcroft hearings, leaders of the anti-Ashcroft campaign criticized the Democrats, in private, for their lack of fierce effectiveness. "The Democrats have to learn how to fight to win," one of the coalition leaders complained. "Trying to achieve fairness is great. But you also have to be willing to play hardball. You didn't have good cross-examination during the hearings." The Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee disappointed the enviros opposing Norton. "It was very frustrating," said an environmental lobbyist. "Bush sends up this extremist, and the Democrats did not push back--or even send a loud message that we don't want her screwing around with laws that protect the environment." But several forgive-and-forget Senate Democrats are not interested in a fight with Bush, and that will hobble any attempt on the part of Congressional Democrats to mount a coherent anti-Bush front. And where's the Democrats' alternative-to-Bush agenda? Congressional Democrats include those eager to cooperate with the President and also those who want to trounce the Filcher of Florida. Bush the "uniter" is so far doing well in dividing the Democrats.
But hold! Isn't it the demand of enlightened people that all within these borders have a right to work without being hassled by the INS or kindred state agency? You can argue whether Linda Chavez treated Marta Mercado, her sometime Guatemalan employee, well or badly, and that poor treatment might disqualify her as Labor Secretary. But the spectacle of Democrats like Senator Tom Daschle solemnly denouncing Chavez for giving work to an undocumented Latina was nauseating.
Here's Chavez, who has appalling views on almost every issue relevant to the job for which she was briefly nominated, and the Democrats finally home in on her for the one decent deed on her record, if you believe the testimony of Marta, to whom Chavez appears to have behaved well.
Chavez has been cruelly taken from them, but what an immense favor Bush/Cheney did the Democrats by putting up Ashcroft and Norton! It's hard to stir up liberal passions over Powell at the State Department or Rice as National Security Adviser, or even O'Neill at Treasury. How could you be worse than Madeleine Albright or Samuel Berger? And who cares about O'Neill, when the effective ruler of the economy is over at the Fed?
But with Ashcroft scheduled for the Justice Department there are rich political and fundraising opportunities for the Democrats, berating the Naderites, We told you so, and painting lurid scenarios of the Klan Grand Wizard taking up residence in the DOJ. Here comes the Beast: Ashcroft, the foe of choice; Ashcroft, the militia-symp; Aschcroft, the racist hero of the old Confederacy. What can you say for the guy, except that he's probably marginally to the left of Eminem, great white hope of the rap crowd and currently in line for four more Grammies.
But will Ashcroft be effectively worse than Attorney General Janet Reno? This time eight years ago she was four months away from incinerating the Branch Davidians at Waco and on the edge of a tenure that has seen her fervent support for the "war on drugs," a k a war on the poor, most especially blacks; her contributions to the crime bill of 1994 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996; the targeting of minority youth; her complaisance toward expansions in the power of the prosecutorial state against citizens; and onslaughts on the Bill of Rights? It's a tough act to follow.
The environmentalists see similar rich opportunity with Gale Norton, graduate of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an anti-environmental think tank based in Denver, Colorado, headed by James Watt, greatest fundraiser for environmental causes in our history. No doubt about it, Norton is scarcely nature's friend. Her dreams are of Exxon's Grand Canyon and Disney's Yosemite. But once again, we should retain our perspective.
Consider, for example, Bill Clinton's exit order, banning roads and logging across 58.5 million acres of public land. Then look at the exceptions: Clinton's ban excludes timber sales now in the pipeline, which can be grandfathered in over the next six years. Other huge loopholes include an OK for logging for "ecological reasons," like firebreaks and deer habitat. There's also an OK for roads for mining and grazing allotments, and for fire control. In all, the order envisages a less than 3 percent reduction of total timber sales in national forests, which isn't much.
If she's smart, Norton will reverse the order simply by choosing one of the other options offered in the environmental impact statement that formed the basis of Clinton's order.
There's likely to be a big fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where outgoing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has just done Norton and the oil industry a big favor by advising Clinton that to designate ANWR a national monument would be "a meaningless gesture" that would invite the Republicans to reverse all such designations made in Clinton time. You can read this as a startlingly forthright admission that national-monument status doesn't mean much, which is true; also that Babbitt is as gutless as ever. To have made ANWR a national monument would have drawn a line in the sand, or in this case, the snow, a bit deeper, and made the forthcoming onslaught on ANWR a little tougher for the Bush/Cheney crowd.
What else can Norton do that Babbitt hasn't already set in motion? Not much. Last year Babbitt's Fish and Wildlife Service put a moratorium on the listing of endangered species, and he's smiled on the privatization of public assets through land trades, whereby timber corporations get old growth and we get the cut-over terrain. Salmon protection? The Clinton Administration has let the Republicans off the hook on that one, decreeing that the dams on the Snake River won't be breached. Oil leasing off the continental shelf? For Bush/Cheney it would be political suicide. Reagan tried and had to back off. Norton will go after the National Environmental Protection Act, but here again Babbitt and Gore paved the way, with their habitat conservation plans, which have ushered so many corporate foxes into the coop.
Over at EPA, Christine Todd Whitman may be bad, but she's no James Watt; and at USDA could anyone be worse than Dan Glickman, friend of factory farms and saboteur of organic standards?
So, all in all, the Bush/Cheney directorate has done a fine job of rallying the Democrats, just as the Democrats, with their weak-kneed surrender to the Florida putsch and talk of bipartisanship, have given ammunition to the radicals denouncing the two-party consensus. For the activists, there's plenty of opportunity. Militant green groups, including the reinvigorated Greenpeace, are fired up, and right here on the doorstep is the prospect of a national fight for microradio, whose future has been sabotaged by the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB, with the complicity of that darling of the Democrats, NPR, shepherded through a legislative rider late last year that outlaws new low-power stations in most urban areas.
So we're back where we were in the dawn of Clinton time, with courageous people asserting their rights and defying corporations and the state. What else is new? Welcome to Bush/Cheney time. The basic map hasn't changed.
Many of George Bush's supporters say that his recent nominations of Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as National Security Adviser and Rod Paige as Secretary of Education prove that he is serious about racial diversity. Moreover, his nomination of a Latino and two white women to his Cabinet suggests that compassionate conservatism boasts enough room for all sorts of minorities. But before we count the votes for Bush's celebrated--or is it calculated?--display of racial leadership, let's at least acknowledge that we may have run into some dimpled chads.
Powell's nomination is a no-brainer, which, as it turns out, may perfectly suit Bush's presidential profile. To take credit for nominating a national hero to extend his stellar record of public service is only a little better than taking credit for inventing the Internet. Powell's halo effect may redound to Bush, but his choice of Powell owes nothing to Bush's fundamental bearing as a racial statesman. Powell and Bush are at significant odds on crucial issues. Powell's vigorous support of affirmative action, his belief in a woman's right to choose and his advocacy for besieged urban children put him to the left of the Bush dogma. To be sure, Powell is no radical. His moderate racial principles are largely acceptable to many blacks because they're not bad for a guy who buys the Republican line, some of its hooks and not many of its sinkers. Unlike Congressman J.C. Watts, the black Republican from Oklahoma who'd just as soon fish all day with his conservative colleagues than cut the race bait. Indeed, Powell's beliefs run the same blush of racial centrism that coursed through the Clinton Administration over the past eight years. The difference is that such moderates, and a sprinkling of liberals, had plenty of company in the Clinton Administration. In a Bush Administration, Powell is, well, a hanging chad.
Of course, Powell's beliefs will have little substantive impact on his future boss's domestic policies, because he has been dispatched to foreign fields where Bush surely needs the help. So what looks like a plum for black folk may be a pit. True, no black person has ever served as Secretary of State. But once we get past the obligatory gratitude black folk are called on to display when conservative whites finally do something halfway decent, the fact is that Powell will have little influence on the public policies that may hamper black progress under a Bush Administration. Powell has not been nominated as Secretary of Health and Human Services, so his input on welfare, for instance, is lost. Instead, if confirmed, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson will practice his widely praised variety of welfare reform, a policy that on both the local and national level has had a horrendous effect on millions of poor blacks. Neither is Powell slated to be the Attorney General, where he may choose the civil rights czar, who carves the policy groove on race in the Justice Department. Instead, that honor may fall to John Ashcroft, an ultraconservative whose opposition to black interests is destructive. An omen of things to come was glimpsed starkly in Ashcroft's contemptuous scuttling of the nomination of black Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White for the federal bench. Not only is Powell's value to Bush on race largely symbolic, that symbolism will more than likely be used to cover policies that harm the overwhelming majority of black Americans who were never persuaded by Powell to join the party of Lincoln (Continentals).
Rice and Paige may be lesser-known political quantities, but they are nonetheless instructive of Bush's racial politics. Rice, the former Stanford provost and assistant national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush, is not as vocal a supporter of affirmative action, preferring a lukewarm version of the policy that may comport well with Bush's nebulous "affirmative access." At Stanford, Rice was not nearly as aggressive as she might reasonably have been in recruiting black faculty, failing to match the efforts of equally conservative universities like Duke. And her record of advising the senior Bush on national security matters indicates that she was a blue-blood conservative in black face.
As for Paige, his my-way-or-the-highway methods have yielded mixed results for the predominantly black and Latino students in Houston, where he has served six years as superintendent of schools. A proponent of annual standardized tests, a measure heartily supported by Bush, Paige has overseen rising test scores while all but abandoning students who couldn't pass muster. Moreover, Paige supports the use of tax money to fund private education, a policy favored by Bush and many blacks but that could have deleterious effects on poor families. The lure of vouchers is seductive, but it fails to address the fact that there is hardly enough money available to make a real difference to those students whose parents are financially beleaguered.
With Rice's nomination, the point may be that a black can be just as staunch in spouting conservative foreign policy as the next wonk. With Paige, the point is that a black can promote the sort of educational policies that help some black folk while potentially harming a larger segment of the community. It is clear that such a state of affairs does not constitute racial progress. The irony is that Powell, Paige and Rice were chosen in part to prove an inclusiveness that is meaningless if their very presence comes at the expense of representing the interests of the majority of black folk, especially those poor and working-class folk who are vulnerable and largely invisible. The lesson the Republicans would have us learn is that not all blacks think alike, that we are no ideological monolith in liberal captivity. The real lesson may be that a black face does not translate into a progressive political presence that aids the bulk of black folk. Especially when that face must put a smile on repressive policies that hurt not just most blacks but those Americans committed to radical democracy. If that counts as racial progress, we need an immediate recount.
Linda Chavez's withdrawal as George W. Bush's nominee for Labor Secretary after mounting evidence that she violated the law by employing an illegal immigrant and then tried to hide the fact should embolden Democrats to mount vigorous challenges to Bush's other Cabinet nominees.
The most dangerous lesson that can be taken from the Chavez fiasco (see David Moberg, page 12) is the theory that Bush's Cabinet picks can be blocked only if they have failed to keep their personal affairs in order. Where does such a calculation leave a John Ashcroft, Bush's archconservative choice for Attorney General? By all accounts, Ashcroft behaved like a gentleman while a member of the exclusive club that is the US Senate. Even some progressive Democrats, like Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone, have expressed personal regard for their former colleague and intimated that their experience could influence them to approve his nomination.
But the fact that Ashcroft or Gale Norton or Ann Veneman might be good company is not sufficient qualification for Senate approval. Policies ought to matter more than personalities. In the administration of a President who appears to lack interest in the details of governing, Cabinet secretaries will wield immense power and could vigorously push right-wing policies that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose.
The Constitution does not require senators to rubber-stamp the Cabinet nominations of Presidents elected under normal circumstances, let alone those who are to be sworn in under a cloud of illegitimacy. Senators, especially Democratic senators who claim to stand in principled opposition to Bush's policies, have a responsibility to assure that positions of public trust are not filled by a wrecking crew bent on destroying government's ability to do good for any but the wealthiest Republicans. They must not shirk that responsibility.