Politics & Policy

The Obama Spoils System

In using government positions to reward loyalty to the Democratic party, the Obama administration broke the law.

A disturbing precedent appears likely to emerge from the controversy surrounding the job offers by White House officials to Pennsylvania congressman Joe Sestak and former Colorado house speaker Andrew Romanoff in exchange for their withdrawal from primary challenges to sitting Democratic United States senators. The White House counsel’s office has asserted that a desire to protect the campaign coffers of the president’s political party is a “legitimate interest,” and that White House officials may therefore offer taxpayer-funded positions in the federal government to further that interest. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs elaborated on this theory, arguing, “The president has, as the leader of the party, has an interest in ensuring that supporters don’t run against each other in contested primaries.” Gibbs later added, “Again, does the leader of the party have an interest in ensuring that primaries that tend to be costly aren’t had so that you’re ready for a general election? Of course.”

Political cronyism, as the Obama administration has repeatedly tried to remind the American people, is not a new phenomenon. In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, a major reform designed to rein in the political spoils system that had tainted Washington politics since the days of Andrew Jackson and replace it with a professional workforce of career civil servants. By abolishing the patronage system whereby public employees were awarded their posts based on their campaign contributions and party loyalties, Congress protected voters from the threat that their elected representatives would use their official positions to advance the careers of party allies instead of the public good.

More than 50 years later, Congress passed the Hatch Act, a sweeping reform that strictly limited the use of federal funds and forbade public officials from using promises of employment, compensation, or any other benefit to affect the outcome of an election. In unambiguous language, the Hatch Act prohibits all federal executive-branch employees, among others, from engaging in political activity while on duty or using government resources for partisan political purposes.

Federal statute leaves no room for doubt: “Whoever, directly or indirectly, promises any employment, position, compensation, contract, appointment, or other benefit, provided for or made possible in whole or in part by any Act of Congress . . . to any person as consideration, favor, or reward for any political activity or for the support of or opposition to any candidate or any political party in connection with any general or special election to any political office, or in connection with any primary election or political convention or caucus held to select candidates for any political office, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”

Surprisingly quick to the president’s defense have been Bush-era officials, including former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter, who recently opined that the Obama administration had done nothing uncommon, and most certainly nothing criminal. The administration quickly seized on Painter’s comments as proof positive that the Sestak and Romanoff offers were perfectly legal. Odd indeed is the sight of an administration once so prone to denounce the political system it inherited now pointing to Bush-era ethics advisers to defend its own backroom dealing.

Putting aside the defense that other administrations also engaged in undisclosed backroom deals, a review of the facts and the plain language of the law support the charge that the White House violated the law in both the Sestak and the Romanoff affairs. Indeed, it is precisely this type of activity that the law was written to prohibit. It is also the type of activity that President Obama pledged to end, once and for all, by bringing change to Washington.

So far, the administration has rebuffed every request to have a thorough investigation. The Justice Department has refused to follow up on these serious allegations, and the only account the public has been given comes from an internal memorandum released by the president’s lawyer on May 28. In that memorandum, White House counsel Robert Bauer attempted to bolster the legal justification for the Sestak job offer on the grounds it was an “unpaid position.” With respect to the Romanoff job, e-mails have now become public that reveal how White House officials made offers of at least three paid positions. Rather than exonerating the White House, the emerging facts continue to undergird concerns about illegal activity in the administration.

Which is why I have petitioned the independent Office of Special Counsel to investigate the White Houses handling of the Sestak and Romanoff job offers to determine whether the administration has broken the law. The results of that independent evaluation are still pending.

The anti-establishment surge that has rolled incumbents — both Republican and Democrat — in elections from Utah to Pennsylvania, from West Virginia to South Carolina, is surely grounded in the growing concern that Washington politicians care less about the interests of the Republic than they do about their own comfortable careers. In time, democracy always rights itself, and political patronage and spoils systems are exposed for what they are: a corrosive, anti-democracy throwback to an era of corrupt politics long since rejected by the American people.

– Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) is the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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