Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Myth of Insulating Appointees from Political Pressure

I had not intended to start this blog with a series of posts about Barack Obama, but I see via TPM Election Central that he has proposed a New Orleans plan. Before I get into a complaint about one aspect of the plan, let me applaud the idea of Democrats putting forth proposals for New Orleans. All three leading Democratic contenders are scheduled to be in New Orleans soon and, if I were running for President, I'd be there about every other week. It is Exhibit A in what happens when you leave governing to people who don't give a shit about governing and its continuing problems are a national tragedy. In some ways, it's worse than Iraq because there isn't a civil war going on in New Orleans, it's part of a very rich country with a functioning government. There's simply no reason why it has to be such a continuing disaster.

One of the points of Obama's plan is: "Like the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FEMA Director will have a fixed term of office to insulate him or her from politics." This is one of the many things that frustrate me about Obama - he seems to have bought into the notion that the problem is politics and that everything will be sunshine and light if we can just get past politics.

Michael Brown was not a horrible director of FEMA because he was under political pressure to be incompetent. He was a horrible Director because he was unqualified for his job. A fixed term wouldn't have changed that. What would have changed that is a law Congress passed in 2006 to set minimum requirements for the job of Director of FEMA. A law that Bush promptly signalled his intent to ignore in a signing statement (honestly the gall of W is something to behold sometimes). Barack Obama sits on the Committee for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which under Joe Lieberman's alleged leadership has not held hearings or otherwise investigated the Katrina mess. From his role on the Committee, Obama more than most Americans is in a position to try to do something about FEMA (and, to his credit, he has tried to do some things).

The inability to solve the problems of New Orleans is a failure of politics, but it's not a failure because it is political. It is a failure because we have a breathtakingly incompetent and arrogant Administration and a Democratic Congress that is unwilling to stand up to it. The problem has been the Executive Branch's lack of accountability to Congress, an accountability that is - at heart - political. It's just that as Digby and Matthew Yglesias have pointed out, we're in this upside-down world where Congress, particularly the Republicans, have not acted in their own political self-interest. In that world, the political process breaks down and so does accountability. (It is true that part of the motivation behind the Administration's continued incompetence might be political, but that's for another day.)

Since politics is not the problem, "insulating" the FEMA director is not the solution. I laughed when I read Obama's endorsement of wanting the FEMA director to be like the FBI director. Because that worked so well for the Clinton Administration with Louis Freeh, who worked openly against Clinton, often giving Republicans on the Hill political cover for their attacks on Clinton and his policies. Louis Freeh could not have been more political, but his term appointment did not insulate him from political pressure or prevent him in acting in a political way. The only thing it insulated him from was accountability. I appreciate Obama not wanting to relive the political fights of the 1990s, but the best way not to repeat history, Senator, is to learn from it.

The last thing we need in the next Administration is less accountability. The heart of accountability in a democracy is the political process.

While I'm on this, let me propose eliminating the term appointment for the FBI Director. It makes the FBI, already incredibly powerful, even more so by eliminating accountability. If President Obama or Clinton or Edwards want to seriously change the FISA or Patriot Act laws, what will FBI Director Mueller do? Will he support them or will he undermine them by working the Hill and/or the press. Regardless of who the next President is, if Mueller wants to stick around, he can until 2011. While he can be removed, it would likely take a ton of political capital to do it. Wouldn't want a hack politician like the President of the United States going after an apolitical, above-it-all guy like Mr. Mueller, would we?

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