Barack Obama campaigned promising to end the Washington influence game if elected president but, thus far, he’s handing out ambassadorial spoils with as much enthusiasm as any of his predecessors.
Fredreka Schouten reports for USA Today:
More than 40% of President Obama’s top-level fundraisers have secured posts in his administration, from key executive branch jobs to diplomatic postings in countries such as France, Spain and the Bahamas, a USA TODAY analysis finds. Twenty of the 47 fundraisers that Obama’s campaign identified as collecting more than $500,000 have been named to government positions, the analysis found.
Overall, about 600 individuals and couples raised money from their friends, family members and business associates to help fund Obama’s presidential campaign. USA TODAY’s analysis found that 54 have been named to government positions, ranging from Cabinet and White House posts to advisory roles, such as serving on the economic recovery board charged with helping guide the country out of recession.
Nearly a year after he was elected on a pledge to change business-as-usual in Washington, Obama also has taken a cue from his predecessors and appointed fundraisers to coveted ambassadorships, drawing protests from groups representing career diplomats. A separate analysis by the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, found that more than half of the ambassadors named by Obama so far are political appointees, said Susan Johnson, president of the association. An appointment is considered political if it does not go to a career diplomat in the State Department.
That’s a rate higher than any president in more than four decades, the group’s data show, although that could change as the White House fills more openings. Traditionally about 30% of top diplomatic jobs go to political appointees, and roughly 70% to veteran State Department employees. Ambassadors earn $153,200 to $162,900 annually.
“It is time to end the spoils system and the de facto sale of ambassadorships,” Johnson said. “The United States is best served by having experienced, knowledgeable and trained career officers fill all positions in our diplomatic service.”
The administration is “well aware of the historical target of career vs. non-career ambassadors, and we will be right on that target,” said White House spokesman Thomas Vietor. He said the first round of diplomatic jobs traditionally go to political appointees because those are the first available when a president takes office.
That explanation strains credulity. Yes, of course, jobs filled by appointees from the previous administration — particularly one of the opposition party — are the one’s a president is most eager to vacate. But, surely, career Foreign Service Officers are ready and eager to be elevated to ambassadorships — especially to such garden spots as Paris, Madrid, and Nassau — and can fill the spot more swiftly than private citizens who have to get their affairs in order.
The real issue here isn’t corruption or even Obama’s hypocrisy. An ambassador’s salary almost surely represents a massive pay cut for each of these big fundraisers. They’re party loyalists motivated by a combination of a desire to serve their country and by the prestige and opportunity to hobnob with bigwigs that come with the office. And it’s conceivable that the final ratio of careerists and spoils appointees will be more in line with traditional levels (even moreso now that this report has surfaced).
No, the problem is the fact that presidents have the discretion to appoint pretty much whomever they please to more than 5000 senior positions in the government, that vast number of which would be far better filled with career professionals.
It makes good sense for presidents to appoint loyalists to key advisory and policymaking positions. The Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor, for example, need to be people the new president trusts implicitly. Ditto undersecretaries and other senior policymakers and, to a lesser extent, senior positions at NSC, independent policymaking boards, and the like. There are legitimate partisan and ideological differences in the country and it’s perfectly reasonable that the public policy decision-making apparatus of the Executive Branch be staffed by people who largely agree with the elected president and serve at his pleasure.
Conversely, ambassadors and other working-level positions carry out policy rather than making it. Professional officers of our foreign, intelligence, and military service (uniformed and civilian, in the case of the latter) can be trusted to faithfully and expertly carry out their orders.
Changing the law on this and drastically cutting back the number of appointed positions (which, practically, would have to be done prospectively, going into effect with Obama’s successor) would greatly improve the efficiency of our government. Not only would it ensure that these positions are filled by competent professionals rather than enthusiastic amateurs but it would mean that they are filled, period. We’re nearly a quarter into Obama’s term and a substantial number of these slots remain unfilled. The process of selecting, vetting, and confirming individuals for such a large number of vacancies is a tremendous drain of resources.
As a bonus, we’d routinely have ambassadors to France who not only understand the nuances of our respective foreign policies but speak French.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.