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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 aggressively.


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 Gorsuch.


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 Internet.


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.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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