Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Bush Nominates Political Cronies To Key State Department, Homeland Security Posts ...

Last month, President Bush said he would "lead an investigation" into why the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was so lacking.

"We want to make sure we can respond properly if there is a WMD attack or another major storm," Bush said.

Here's a thought: To guarantee "we can respond properly," Bush should stop putting political cronies in key positions.

Ultimately, that was why the federal response to Katrina was so poor: the people in charge lacked experience. Michael Brown, the former FEMA director, may have been able to throw millions of dollars around after four hurricanes, including Frances, hit Florida last year -- a move that led some Republicans to say Brown helped deliver Florida for Bush in last year's election, and to promote Brown as a successor to former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

But Katrina was too much for Brown to handle. And he and his top two deputies at FEMA lacked emergency management experience -- the reason Bush went outside the chain of command in selecting R. David Paulison as the new acting FEMA head.

So you'd think Bush would learn. Qualified people = better response to disasters.

But one thing we've learned about this president -- he's stubborn, or as he puts it, he likes to "stay the course" (a phrase Bush uses so often, it's led to on-line parodies).

Of course, when it comes to homeland security or disaster management, you'd think Bush might not want to "stay the course," lest he be faced with additional political embarrassments.

Not so.

Which brings us to the nomination of Ellen Sauerbrey to head the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, a key agency for responding to foreign disasters.

Sauerbrey, a former member of the Republican National Committee who was Bush's Maryland state campaign chairwoman in 2000, has been a conservative activist for decades but has no experience mobilizing responses to humanitarian emergencies.

As the Los Angeles Times points out, appointing political allies to government jobs is a tradition in Washington, but the refugee bureau is a complex agency with a broad portfolio. Past administrations, Republican and Democratic, have generally turned to someone with technical expertise to head it.

If confirmed by the Senate, which will likely have hearings this month, Sauerbrey would head an agency with a $700-million annual budget that has responsibility for coordinating the U.S. government's response to refugee crises during natural disasters and wars.

The bureau coordinates with private and international organizations, such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to help set up refugee camps and to ensure sufficient food and other aid. It has helped confront refugee crises around the globe, including in war-torn Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in southern Asia after the December tsunami.

"This is not a position where you drop in a political hack," Joel R. Charny of Refugees International in Washington told the Times. The international relief group opposes Sauerbrey's nomination.

"I don't want to say this is Michael Brown redux," he said, "but what qualifications does she have to deal with the core issue of refugees? The answer is none."

Kathleen Newland, director of the independent Migration Policy Institute, said former Bush appointee Arthur Dewey, former Clinton appointee Julia Taft, and earlier bureau heads had deep field experience before being named to the job.

"The refugee bureau has not been a spot for political appointments," Newland said. "This is not a position for on-the-job learning."

***

The nomination of Sauerbrey, of course, comes at the same time as Bush's questionable nomination of Julie Myers to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Homeland Security agency that is charged with hunting down money launderers, sanctions busters and human traffickers and that is the sole enforcer of U.S. immigration laws. ICE, with 20,000 employees, is the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government.

Myers' top qualifications? She's a former chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (when he ran the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice), is recently married to Chertoff's current chief of staff John F. Wood, and is the niece of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers. Many have speculated that Bush nominated Myers as a political favor to loyal soldier Chertoff.

During her confirmation hearing Sept. 15 before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, her resume was found lacking.

"I'm really concerned about your management experience," said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-OH). "I think that we ought to have a meeting with Mike Chertoff ... to ask him ... why he thinks you're qualified for the job. Because based on your resume, I don't think you are."
***

Maybe, as one op-ed writer wrote Sunday, "Michael Brown has done a great service to this nation," by showing Americans that in George Bush's world, "cronyism is serious business."
Putting your political allies in safe ambassadorships and undersecretary positions is one thing. But Sauerbrey and Myers, like Brown before, could make decisions that could save or cost lives. That's a far cry from the decisions made by the ambassador to Luxembourg or New Zealand.

You'd think our president would learn. Nope. He'd rather "stay the course," no matter the consequences.

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