While both candidates have formed “transition teams” to manage their takeover of the executive branch of government from the Bush administration next year, little is known or written about most of the “people” around the candidates.
I’m not talking here about the “high profile” people (e.g., Colin Powell) who have blatantly traded their political endorsement for a “big job” in a new administration. Most of these other folks - some now laboring in the campaigns - will also secure political appointments in a new administration. It’s a Byzantine process, and it’s no wonder we end up with way too many appointees who are just not up to the political job they end up getting.
We’re also not talking about a lot of jobs: Only a handful of “executive level” (i.e., statutory) and 1650 “Schedule C” (political) appointees out of a federal work force of 1.8 million. However, these also include the most senior supervisory and policy positions - i.e., those responsible for the developing and carrying out the new administration’s policies.
So, where do they come from? To begin with, the candidates already have lots of “people” attached to them in their campaign organizations, and the candidates all have personal friends and political colleagues (who may also have “people”). Here’s an example of the latter kind of tie - this one to Gov. Sarah Palin - and reported recently in the International Herald Tribune: “[W]hen there was a vacancy at the top of Alaska’s Division of Agriculture, Palin appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister. … A former real estate agent, Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as one of her qualifications.”
And, the candidates have lots of “door keepers” or “screeners” - those close aides who control or otherwise monitor their access to people, phone calls, e-mails and papers. This is why it’s often said in Washington that politicians “fall in love with their paper handlers.”
In addition, few (there are some rare exceptions) people who end up in the highest level (e.g., Cabinet level) jobs have much of an idea what will be required of them. Yet, they are expected to walk in, pick up the continuity of their new office, and carry it on without missing a beat.
So, they come on board with their own “people” - like worker bees hovering around the queen - sitting in offices around the “principal” whether he or she is the secretary of state, defense or attorney general.
If high-level appointees come from Congress, they often bring their “hill staffers” with them (this is usually a disaster, as I’ll explain later). If they come from the private sector or from “out of town” they may bring people they know and trust. If they have prior senior political experience, they generally bring in people who have worked for them before.
Depending on the closeness of their relationship with the president, they may bring in a lot of people - or, if the president doesn’t know them well (or at all), the White House might insist on having its own people there to keep an eye on things.
So you can have a real hodge-podge of people - and any of them can end up with inordinate power, depending on the personalities and quirks of the political wiring diagram in effect.
A good example of this dynamic in recent years was the Janet Reno Department of Justice, where the White House extensively “peopled” the department with senior appointees. The most notorious was Hillary Clinton’s law firm associate and the department’s “No. 3” (the associate attorney general), who later went to jail for crimes committed before coming to Washington as one of the Clintons’ “people.”
As noted earlier, a special comment is required regarding “hill staffers.” With some notable exceptions, these “people” who end up in high-level executive branch jobs are typically very young and not at all “deep” in any particular subject, but have learned to simulate it, especially in front of their congressional “sponsor.” The recent - and embarrassing - political demise of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his top aides illustrates this dynamic - truly the blind leading the blind.
In many ways, it’s really not much different from the business world, where favorites and favoritism are rampant - this until the practice starts costing the company big money. However, incompetent political appointees in government usually stay on the job as long as they can and become “work arounds” in order to get anything done. The worst-case, possibly nightmare, scenario involves incompetent but ambitious appointees who believe they are very smart or have special skills.
In sum, no matter who wins the election, look for a flood of new senior political appointees in the various agencies and departments of government. Some of the appointees - we hope most - will be top-notch, or at least at least competent enough to do the job they get.
Nevertheless, too many will have so little knowledge, background, experience (or common sense) that they will cause more problems than they are worth, especially if they believe their skills somehow match the responsibilities of their new job title.
Look very carefully at the biographies of these new “people” - and don’t be surprised if they were a classmate, campaign worker, staffer, doorkeeper or paper-handler just before they became “somebody important.”
Daniel Gallington served in senior career and political appointments and as general counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee.