Bush's Strategy To Hobble Government

This opinion piece ran in the Hartford Courant on Sunday, September 18, 2005.

By Douglas J. Amy

Americans were rightly shocked to learn that Michael Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was totally unqualified for his job - gaining it because he was the college roommate of the previous director.

And it is certainly appalling that the man in charge of protecting lives and property during natural catastrophes had absolutely no experience in disaster management.

But what Americans should really be appalled about is that this kind of appointment is hardly the exception in the Bush administration. Brown is just one example of an ongoing pattern of inappropriate and disturbing appointments by President Bush - appointments that threaten to undermine the basic functioning of many key government agencies.

This administration's guiding political philosophy is that government is a bad thing and should be cut back to a minimum. It has a particular contempt for the federal bureaucracy, which it sees as the embodiment of "liberal big government." So it is hardly surprising that the administration has not made a great effort to ensure that the best-qualified people are running these agencies.

But the situation is actually much worse than this. It is not simply that Bush put incompetent political hacks like Brown in place. He has also been appointing officials who are actually hostile to the agencies that they run. Many of them have political values and views diametrically opposed to the very missions of these agencies.

For example, many of Bush's appointees to agencies charged with protecting the environment have been opposed to environmental regulations in particular, and government regulation in general. And many have come from businesses or conservative organizations that have fought against efforts at environmental protection.

Exhibit one is Gail Norton, who was named head the Department of the Interior. She is a protege of the infamous anti-environmentalist of the Reagan era, James Watt. Before taking office, Norton had argued to the Supreme Court that both the Endangered Species Act and the Surface Mining Act were unconstitutional - two laws she is now in charge of carrying out.

Her hostile attitude toward environmental protection was clearly revealed when she once observed that "we have in many ways reached the limits of what we can do through governmental regulation and mandates."

Or consider Daniel Troy, who Bush appointed as chief counsel for the Food and Drug Administration during his first term. Previously, he leveled a number of lawsuits against the FDA arguing against its right to regulate drug companies. Once in office, he stalled efforts to investigate the problems surrounding ephedra - a dietary supplement implicated in the deaths of more than 100 people.

And in a speech he gave to drug industry lawyers after his appointment, he offered the help of the government in defending these companies against lawsuits by consumers, such as those claiming that medications caused devastating side effects. It was clear whose side he was on, and it was certainly not that of the public.

And these appointments are just the tip of the iceberg. An investigative reporter for the Denver Post found that more than 100 of the high-level officials appointed by Bush in his first term alone were overseeing the industries they used to represent as lobbyists, employees or lawyers. The foxes are now guarding the henhouse.

But there is a deeper political agenda at work here. These appointments have been part of the White House strategy to do an end-run around the democratic process. For years, Republicans have wanted to roll back environmental, workplace and consumer protection regulations. But the Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to do so because they fear a backlash from the public.

So the Bush administration has decided to use unelected administrators to sabotage these regulatory programs from within. These anti-regulatory appointees have been cutting their own budgets, purposefully delaying new regulations, discouraging vigorous enforcement of current regulations, firing inspectors and enlarging loopholes to the rules so that more businesses can escape regulation.

If Bush had tried to name a dedicated pacifist as secretary of defense, the public would have been outraged. But he has been doing virtually the same thing in many other agencies by appointing officials who are ideologically dedicated to subverting the purposes of the agencies they have joined.

These irresponsible appointments are putting the health and welfare of millions of citizens at risk. Americans need well-funded and well-run federal programs to protect them and their families not only from natural disasters, but also from bad drugs, unsafe workplaces, dangerous products and environmental threats to their health.

Americans did not vote to make their lives more risky, but that is exactly what they are getting from this administration. Instead of protecting the American public, the administration is neglecting it. And no one knows that better now than the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Douglas J. Amy is a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

Related Link:

Douglas J. Amy - Faculty Profile