The Bush administration’s political affairs office orchestrated an aggressive strategy to use taxpayer-funded trips to help elect Republican candidates, says a draft House report that recommends eliminating the office in future administrations or revamping laws to prevent such activity.
The office coordinated travel to 326 Republican campaign events in the 10-month run-up to the 2006 elections - more than one per day. It included trips to 35 states by officials from 12 Cabinet agencies and three independent offices, despite Hatch Act prohibitions on political activity by members of the executive branch other than the president and vice president, the report said.
“That’s a gross abuse of the public trust,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that produced the report. “I hope the next administration, whether it is an Obama or McCain administration, will abolish the White House Office of Political Affairs.”
Republicans said the report itself was steeped in partisan politics.
The Democratic investigation did find evidence that the Clinton administration abused the office and noted that controversy and allegations of misuse surrounded the office since its creation by President Reagan. But the report said, “The extent of political activity by the current White House and its deep and systematic reach into the federal agencies is unprecedented.”
The White House called the report “an attempt to score political points” fewer than three weeks before Election Day, noting that for years, presidents from both parties used the office of political affairs to assist the president in his role as head of his party.
“Waxman endeavors tend to be a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money,” White House spokesman Scott M. Stanzel said. “This one is no different. … Rather than spend time focusing on Congressman Waxman’s transparent attempt to make political hay with his draft press report, we’ll continue to center our attention on more important matters like stabilizing the economy, keeping America safe and working with state and local officials in California to respond to the raging wildfires.”
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, ranking member of the committee, said he was “deeply skeptical about the methodology and seriousness” of the findings.
“They set out to find banned political activity in the White House. Instead, the committee Democrats found the same kinds of things done by every administration since Eisenhower,” he said. “Their angry swooning just doesn’t pass the smell test.”
He said the true aims of the investigation became apparent with requests and subpoenas for 70,000 documents from the current White House, 29 federal agencies and the Republican National Committee (RNC), which was forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on compliance costs that could’ve been used on campaigns for Republican House candidates.
“It was an unprecedented use of majority authority to, in effect, defund the opposition,” Mr. Davis said.
In the report, investigators said that in an interview with Ken Mehlman, President Bush’s first director of political affairs, he stated that “a big part” of his job was to “help elect allies of the president.”
Mr. Mehlman also told investigators that he thought “one legally could have, in the Office of Political Affairs, focused entirely on simply promoting … the president’s allies.” He said that he consulted closely about “nearly all aspects of what I was doing” with the Office of White House Counsel under Alberto R. Gonzales, according to the report.
The report recommends Congress outlaw the office or update the Hatch Act, a civil statute that bans federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity.
Violations of the Hatch Act can be punished by removal from office or other administrative sanctions, preventing penalties against former federal employees such as Mr. Mehlman.
As a result, the report said, the committee was not referring its findings to the Department of Justice or the Office of Special Counsel for further investigation.
“To prevent a repetition of the abuses of the White House Office of Political Affairs, Congress should revise the Hatch Act,” the report said. “American taxpayers should not pay the salaries of White House officials when they are engaged in helping to elect members of the president’s political party. They should also not pay the travel expenses of Cabinet and other senior officials who fly across the country to boost the re-election chances of vulnerable members of Congress.”