Congressional Democrats are pushing for the appointment of a party loyalist and frequent critic of President George W. Bush to a powerful government watchdog post that historically has gone to nonpartisan nominees.
The post is comptroller general of the United States, who directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO), often called Congress’ auditor. At the request of lawmakers, it has wide power to investigate all government functions, and its written reports and testimony can mean life or death for government programs.
A special congressional selection commission typically compiles a bipartisan list of recommendations and sends it to the president, who chooses a nominee from the list for Senate approval to a 15-year term.
But bipartisan talks broke off for the current GAO opening. Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, unilaterally sent a letter to President Obama listing four names.
Republicans say the Democrats abandoned bipartisanship because they want the job to go to Linda Bilmes, a former Clinton administration political appointee and current Harvard University professor.
Republicans supported the three others on the Democrats’ list — Rep. Todd R. Platts, Pennsylvania Republican; acting GAO chief Gene L. Dodaro; and former Assistant Comptroller General Ira Goldstein — but not Ms. Bilmes, a registered Democrat. They say the fact that Democrats took the extraordinary step of recommending Ms. Bilmes anyway shows they want her in the traditionally independent job.
“President Obama has a choice to make,” said Rep. Darrell Issa of California, a GAO selection panel member and the senior Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “He can either follow the unfortunate and partisan path put forward by congressional Democrats and nominate an ideologue like Linda Bilmes or he can uphold GAO’s appropriate role as a nonpartisan and neutral broker. At the end of the day, the politicization of the GAO will be met with hostility and will not withstand Senate confirmation.”
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, tells a different story. He said Republican staff members blocked the process.
“Democrats and Republicans had been working diligently to find a group of candidates on which all members could agree,” Mr. Manley said in an e-mail to The Washington Times. “We reached an impasse and Democrats agreed on a slate of candidates — Dodaro, Goldstein, Bilmes, and Platts. It was a bipartisan list. We’ve got a Republican member of Congress on there. We presented the list to the Republican leadership on March 9 to give them a slate of candidates that the Dems could agree on. We asked for their input or if there were other people that they wanted to put on the list. We received no constructive feedback on our list, only claims that they couldn’t get this in front of their bosses. — We followed up several times over the next two weeks before finally sending out a Democratic list on March 23.”
The complaints against Ms. Bilmes:
• She has written a series of op-ed columns critical of Mr. Bush, especially over the Iraq war, which she wanted the U.S. to end. She was a cast member in the liberal documentary “No End in Sight,” which ridiculed Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy while delighting the anti-war movement.
• Her co-authored book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” contends that the cost of the Iraq conflict was far greater than just the money budgeted for operations and rebuilding. Conservatives panned her assessment for what they considered the double-counting of procurement and personnel costs that would have happened anyway, war or no war.
• She has written a series of columns criticizing the Iraq war. A 2005 article also thumped the Pentagon for trying to recruit more Hispanics.
“Throughout history, nations have sent their poorest to be foot soldiers,” she wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “In that long, sad tradition, Uncle Sam is now beckoning its most recent immigrants to fight this war so the rest of us don’t have to.”
• Federal Election Commission records show she has donated $16,400 to Democrats since 2000, including all the party’s major presidential nominees, and none to Republicans. Her contributions for the 2008 race included $2,300 each to Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and $3,300 to John Edwards.
An internal House Republican staff memo states: “She is an unabashed partisan with a track record of supporting Democratic candidates and causes. GAO is one of the last non-partisan political organizations left in Washington D.C.”
Ms. Bilmes, who teaches budgeting and public finance at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, objected to this characterization during an interview with The Washington Times. She said her body of work is far more extensive than those cited by Republicans. She said she will change her party registration to independent if she becomes comptroller general.
“My response is the issues I worked on, which included issues related to the federal debt and deficit and human resource situation in government and the cost of the Iraq war and the pension situation at the state and local level, are really issues that affect everyone,” she said. “I really don’t think they are partisan issues. I don’t see this as a partisan job. I certainly would not be partisan. I think I have hundreds and hundreds of students who are Republicans, Democrats and independents who would, and do, vouch for my nonpartisanship.”
About her financial support for Democrats, Ms. Bilmes said: “When we wrote the Iraq book, because it was a New York Times best-seller, I earned some money on the book. I gave money back to a range of charities and I also contributed to the candidates. I felt very strongly it was important to the country at that point to conclude the Iraq war. Anyone who is a candidate for comptroller general, unless they have been, as it were, seeking the comptrollership since the age of 5, is going to be a person who participates to some extent in the electoral process in the country.”
She declined to comment when asked whether she had been interviewed by the White House.
The GAO directorship has been vacant since 2008, when David Walker resigned to become head of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a nonprofit, anti-deficit group.
The selection committee worked for months to come up with a bipartisan list. The talks ended last month, when Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi sent a letter to the White House recommending Ms. Bilmes and Mr. Platts, Mr. Dodaro and Mr. Goldstein.
According to the Republican staff memo, there was unanimous, or near-unanimous, support for all candidates except Ms. Bilmes. “Platts knows his name is being put on the list just so they can say they have a Republican on the list and feign bipartisanship,” the memo states.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and three other Republican committee members sent Mr. Obama a letter March 25 saying Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid cut off negotiations. The letter said they could support three candidates on the Democrats’ list, but not Ms. Bilmes, signaling a tough confirmation battle if she is nominated.