Executive branch courts Hill staffers left jobless after elections

White House officials have told GOP lawmakers and their staffs that the administration froze many political slots to absorb furloughed Republicans.

President Bush and the Iraq war spelled defeat last month for Republicans on Capitol Hill, but the party's losses are giving the administration a rare chance to pour new blood into key executive posts during the president's seventh year.

History suggests that administrations at the end of their second terms calcify with chronic vacancies, "acting" appointees, and political nominees who are promoted above their C.V.'s because of their long-standing loyalty. Political scientists and veteran recruiters said the Bush workforce is slipping into a churning phase where savvy officials leap back to the private sector and the junior assistant deputies move up.

Ironically, the GOP's drubbing at the polls could stave off the inevitable slide, if Bush succeeds in hiring some of the best Hill staffers -- and members -- who are looking for work.

Within four days of the midterm losses, the White House Office of Presidential Personnel sent word to Republican congressional leaders that the executive branch welcomed resumes and applications from the hundreds of soon-to-be-unemployed congressional staffers. Each department and executive agency set up an expedited system of interviews that produced a first wave of job offers to Hill aides by the second week of December.

Interest in moving from the Hill to the executive branch "is high at all levels -- the member level and their staffs," explained White House Personnel Director Liza Wright during an interview last week in her sunny West Wing office. "There are some incredibly talented people that we are able to bring into our process as a result of that."

No members have yet made the leap, but newspapers have speculated that Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa -- both defeated on November 7 -- are candidates for the ambassador to the United Nations vacancy, or for other high posts.

The president's embattled U.N. pick, John Bolton, withdrew his name when it became clear that the Senate would not vote before his recess appointment expired this month. Counting Bolton, Bush has made 161 recess appointments since 2001, according to White House figures.

The White House has told GOP lawmakers and their staffs that it froze many political slots throughout the government before Election Day just so the administration could be ready to absorb furloughed Republicans. "They were prepared," said one senior House leadership aide, who asked not to be named.

He described a two-step process: He and other senior colleagues were invited to the White House for interviews to assess their qualifications and their policy interests before being passed along to various departments for interviews tied to specific openings.

"There are a lot of fun stories about being asked by 22-year-old boys to describe three things you've done to further the policies of President Bush, but that's OK; you have to eat some humble pie," the aide said, noting that he made his hunt for a paycheck as broad as possible because his second child is due this month. As it happened, his Hill connections led to a job with a downtown lobbying firm.

Unemployed and Labor-Resistant

A House leadership aide with only nine months of congressional experience as an executive assistant -- who also asked to speak on background -- said he had completed seven executive branch interviews since the Republicans lost their majority. Two follow-up interviews were scheduled at departments this week, and he's also had a feeler from the Homeland Security Department.

On December 8, the Labor Department offered him a legislative assistant job that pays more than his Hill post. But the 23-year-old is hesitating, even though he's heard that as many as 3,000 Republicans may be searching for work.

"It's simply that I don't want to have labor issues stamped on my resume," he explained, "because that's not really my interest." He'd like to thread his way back to Congress in a year or so, he said, and he'd prefer to gain some experience at Energy, Commerce, or Health and Human Services. "But it may be that I need something, versus waiting for something better," he conceded. His last check will be in January, and he already relies on his parents in California to underwrite some of his living expenses.

Though grateful for the Bush administration's help, the young Republican said that the president is the one who gains by offering shelter to the GOP refugees. "They are hiring people who are more qualified than they would otherwise have been able to do," he said.

Although an executive branch job may sound attractive, some Republican congressional aides who are thinking about the switch do not see the administration as Olympus, nor do they kid themselves about second-term thunderbolts. "Bush has to realize that in the next two years, it will be so hard to get things done," the young House aide said.

Wright insists that Bush's oft-stated determination to drive his agenda until the last possible moment continues to tamp down turnover and attract top people to his administration.

"Our ability to recruit now is similar to our ability a year ago," said Wright, who left a professional recruiting firm to join the Bush White House in 2003 and was chosen to head the personnel office two years later. "And I'll be honest -- if you had asked me a year ago where we would be today, I would have anticipated, because of historical precedents, that it would be harder. We still have two full years, so I think a lot of people recognize that the president still has a lot to accomplish, and he's not going to quit until that very last day. So I think some people are really turned on about that."

Wright said she is pleasantly surprised, because veterans of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations had warned her that this would be the period when recruiting outside talent and retaining the most-experienced appointees would be difficult. She and her staff of 26 assistants are constantly hunting for candidates to keep more than 5,200 political jobs filled.

Experts say that a 15 percent vacancy rate is normal for most years of any administration, a figure that can rise to 20 or 30 percent by the end. In that context, "vacant" means that no Senate-confirmed appointee is in place, but someone else may be doing the work temporarily. Wright said that 96 percent of Bush's political posts are filled, even if temporarily, as of December.

"Right now we are still bringing in as many people from the outside as we were two, three, four years ago," she said. "We are doing some promotions from within, but I'm also proud to say we are bringing a lot of new people into the administration."

Wright cites as examples Henry Paulson Jr., whom Bush persuaded to leave Wall Street to head the Treasury Department, and Robert Gates, who agreed to give up the presidency of Texas A&M University to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

Paulson and Gates were two of six Cabinet-level change-ups that Wright and her staff handled in 2006. The only other top-echelon newcomer to Bush's team was former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who signed on as Interior secretary.

The other shuffles were internal: Mary Peters moved up from the Federal Highway Administration to succeed retiring Democrat Norman Mineta as Transportation secretary; former Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio walked across 17th Street from the U.S. Trade Representative's Office to be director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Bush named Portman's USTR deputy, Susan Schwab, to the top trade job.

Promoting Within Team Bush

G. Calvin Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College in Maine, said in an interview that the final two years of a two-term presidency -- usually a tidying-up period with eyes on the history books -- is when loyalists already in the administration win promotions. That allows the White House to sidestep Senate confirmation complications and to reward the foot soldiers who have been in the trenches from the beginning.

"I admire the notion in the White House that they can still get things done, but I'm skeptical," said Mackenzie, who has written books about the political appointee process. "This is when they look around to see who's already on board, and who has earned getting a slightly better position on their resumes."

Wright does not deny that many of Bush's picks will come from inside -- she just argues that it won't start right away.

"A year from now -- I think the answer is, yes," it will be harder to recruit, she said. At a point when the White House can't find candidates eager to fill certain jobs, or when it runs out of cooperative Democratic senators willing to confirm appointees, "we are hoping we can look at our team and get people promoted from within." She added, "But only in cases where, certainly, it's warranted and the performance is there."

Bob Nash, who was President Clinton's personnel director, recalled in an interview that when it came to filling Senate-confirmed positions at the end of Clinton's second term, it was a hurdle to find top candidates who were willing to endure the paperwork filings, background checks, and financial divestitures for anything shy of a two-year assignment.

For some political jobs, "we had a lot of people who wanted to come in," Nash recalled, "but it was our assessment that they could not do the jobs." Nash wouldn't reveal names of candidates who turned down White House job feelers, or of those who ran aground in the early vetting.

Under such circumstances, some deputy assistant secretaries, special assistants, and Senior Executive Service officials assumed the reins. "They were very knowledgeable," he added, "although they may not have been the person you would have put in at the beginning."

Making it through a Senate confirmation process gives those nominees clout over Schedule C appointees, who are selected by the president but do not require congressional approval. An administration run by presidential cronies, acting supervisors, recess appointees, and Schedule C's runs the risk of operating in a kind of suspended animation.

"You don't have people who are willing to take as many chances as the person who is confirmed," Nash said. He believes that second terms -- no matter how determined the president may be to drive the executive branch until his final days in office -- are weaker simply because officials inevitably sacrifice less and focus their attention on their resumes.

The Democrats' victory in November forced obvious personnel considerations for the executive branch. Two of Bush's most criticized combatants -- Rumsfeld and Bolton -- departed. Others who were out of the limelight but clearly in senators' crosshairs also made hasty exits. For example, David Laufman withdrew on December 6 from consideration as the Defense Department's inspector general because the White House did not believe he would be confirmed. Critics said that Laufman, like the preceding IG, had a background that was too cozy with defense contractors.

Even when Republicans held all the levers of power in Washington and were inclined to honor White House personnel requests, the president encountered some problems with the quality and performance of appointees. The criticism that rained down on Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, showed that slender political connections can be deadly substitutes for experience and competence.

Wright was promoted to head the White House personnel office just a month before Hurricane Katrina struck. Asked to describe the lessons she drew from Katrina, her features tensed as she prepared to give her oft-repeated answer.

"There is no doubt that a lot in that timeframe did not operate well," she said, choosing her words carefully. "It reinforced the fact that we want to ensure that the most-qualified people are leading our agencies and the federal government."

Knowing that one of the raps on Bush is his insistence on loyalty and tight White House control over the departments, Wright took pains to emphasize that the qualifications of nominees come first when she and her staff meet with him every two weeks to review personnel recommendations compiled in what is known as "The Book." By the time Bush weighs his staff's picks, aides have done the political vetting of each candidate.

That the president welcomed a professionally trained corporate recruiter with little political experience to become his personnel director should be evidence that he wants strong nominees to come into government, Wright added.

"When I first came to the White House in 2003, I interviewed with [then-Chief of Staff] Andy Card," she recalled. "He said, 'We have a great team here in Presidential Personnel, but we have something called the 500-meter problem. If our candidates don't exist within 500 meters of the White House, we don't always call them.' It can be, regardless of whatever administration is in office, a very insular environment."

Other White House aides affirmed that Wright and her team play it straight in recruiting -- but that the White House Political Affairs Office checks whether a prospect worked for Bush in his campaigns; donated money to the right candidates or to the Republican Party; is registered to vote and has voted in previous elections; or in other ways has established allegiance to the president and his agenda.

"They don't successfully keep every Democrat out, but if you have a choice between a qualified Democrat and a qualified Republican, you choose the Republican," said one former White House aide. Bush's political advisers -- Karl Rove, chief among them -- press to reward individuals who have helped Republicans.

"You can't just pick people off the street and say this person would be good for the job because of their qualifications without striking a balance," the former aide explained. "We have people we need to take care of."

Quality and Qualifications

Congressional Democrats have asserted that the quality of political appointees has declined under Bush, compared with other recent administrations. They admit, however, that as a report written for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., put it last May, "there is no recognized metric for measuring the quality of political appointees" -- only their qualifications.

In addition to FEMA's Brown (who honed his disaster-management skills as a commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association before becoming FEMA's general counsel in 2001), Waxman and his colleagues last year questioned the experience of Julie Myers, the niece of Gen. Richard Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Julie Myers's limited qualifications to become assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Homeland Security drew bipartisan opposition and charges of cronyism because she is married to the chief of staff for DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. The president gave Myers a recess appointment last January, giving her a year to serve without Senate confirmation.

Over six years, Bush has grown fond of the recess-appointment option as a way to circumvent congressional objections. What he will do with Democrats in charge remains to be seen. According to presidential statistics compiled by Congressional Quarterly, the first President Bush made an average of 19 recess appointments a year; Clinton made about 18 a year for his first term; and the current president averaged 26.5 a year during his first four years in the White House.

Presidents can also evade confirmation controversies and prevent prolonged vacancies by naming acting administrators. That phenomenon is expected to be on the upswing next year as Democrats assert themselves and as recruits for Senate-confirmed jobs become more skittish about undergoing the process.

In the last year, for example, the president installed Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach as acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration while allowing him to keep his post as director of the National Cancer Institute. Some lawmakers from both parties called the doubling-up a clear conflict of interest, and he eventually left NCI. The GOP-led Senate finally voted to confirm von Eschenbach at the FDA as one of its final acts this month.

The U.S. surgeon general, Rear Adm. Kenneth Moritsugu, is on his second tour as "acting," filling in after the low-profile Surgeon General Richard Carmona departed this year. Moritsugu, who became deputy surgeon general in 1998, is a good example of a career official who keeps the trains running.

Meanwhile, the White House has not yet found a successor for Mark McClellan as head of HHS's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. McClellan, a medical doctor and economist who is a close Bush associate from Texas and the brother of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, resigned in September after also serving in the White House and at the FDA.

At the White House, officials are preparing to name yet another wave of midlevel presidential advisers. Aides who stayed through the midterm elections are quietly searching for work in the private sector while their president remains in the Oval Office and their connections still carry some weight.

Bush's director of intergovernmental affairs, Ruben Barrales, is heading back to California to work for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. The director of public liaison, Rhonda Keenum, who has small children and whose husband was confirmed on December 9 as an Agriculture Department undersecretary, is thinking about a more lucrative private-sector position, as are some of the "strategery" aides in Rove's domain, including those in the political-affairs office, sources report.

Rove has revealed nothing definitive about his future -- except to appear closely engaged with the fine print of Bush's agenda heading into the homestretch. Asked about his plans for the new year, Rove replied: "Big think."