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May 5, 2008
The Neglected Issue:
Presidents Govern By Appointments
By virtually all accounts, Mary Gade was an able and fair
administrator. An environmental attorney with more than 20 years
experience, she lobbied in 2000 on behalf of the man who would become
her boss – President George W. Bush.
In 2006, Gade was appointed as director of the EPA’s
Region V, which covers the Great Lakes Region. She developed a
reputation for fairness and thoroughness that earned her praise from
superiors and those with whom she disagreed.
But she apparently made someone angry, because last week
Gade was forced from office.
The cause of her
dismissal? She allegedly pursued a polluting chemical company too
It has become normal for
the Bush Administration to face accusations that it has gone soft on
enforcement. Before his fall from grace, ex-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer
accused the administration of stifling attempts to more closely
scrutinize subprime mortgages. The result has been a crisis in the
housing market, tightened credit and a looming recession. This came just
a few years after the fall of Enron, empowered by lax enforcement, took
with it the pensions of hundreds of employees.
What it does raise, in
this election year, is the question of how each of the candidates would
do a very basic part of their jobs – enforce laws.
It’s not just a question
of how, but also whom.
The issue of appointees
is itself nothing new. Back when Ronald Reagan rode to office, claiming
that government was the problem, he brought with him James Watt and Anne
Before joining the Reagan
Administration, Watt founded the Mountain States Legal Foundation. Its
stated purpose was the furtherance of liberty, but it was also a
breeding ground for anti-environmentalism. Although Watt ultimately
resigned for disparaging minorities, he was criticized as blatantly
hostile to environmental concerns.
Gorsuch resigned after
being found in contempt of Congress for refusing to disclose documents
about a potential conflict of interest that involved the Superfund
cleanup program. During her tenure, her agency’s funding was cut $200
million and her staff slashed by almost a quarter.
Although it’s not as if a
Jimmy Carter re-election would have hinged on knowing that Reagan
planned to put extremists in charge of key federal agencies, it’s still
an important question to ask – how does a candidate plan to govern
through appointments? It’s a difficult, complex issue because
appointments aren’t made until after the election. It also operates in
the gray area of the campaign, based more on predicting what someone
might do than identifying what they have. That, in turn, would require
carefully vetting who is providing a candidate advice and who a
candidate’s constituencies are.
As difficult as that
sounds, people did this, back in 2000, predicting that the Bush
Administration wouldn’t challenge important environmental law but rather
strangle it by refusing to enforce. That prediction turned out to be
accurate, but practically no one heard it made because it was made by a
small number of people with a narrow audience. The bulk of the media was
worrying itself over whether Al Gore really said he invented the
This year, things are
again not promising. We know that Barack Obama is a poor bowler, but we
have no idea what kind of people he’d appoint to key regulatory
positions if elected. The same is true about Hillary Clinton and John
McCain. And while it’s perhaps critical to know that we shouldn’t invite
Obama to sub in a bowling league, history tells us that a president’s
most potent legacy isn’t through legislation they endorse, but the
people they put in charge of enforcing it and how they do their jobs.
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