The Vine

How Tricky Can This Satellite Stuff Really Be?

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You know what the federal government needs right now? A bunch of Bush appointees without any sort of scientific background getting slotted in key science-related civil service positions, that's what:


In one recent example, Todd Harding -- a 30-year-old political appointee at the Energy Department -- applied for and won a post this month at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There, he told colleagues in a Nov. 12 e-mail, he will work on "space-based science using satellites for geostationary and meteorological data." Harding earned a bachelor's degree in government from Kentucky's Centre College, where he also chaired the Kentucky Federation of College Republicans.

Also this month, Erik Akers, the congressional relations chief for the Drug Enforcement Administration, gained a permanent post at the agency after being denied a lower-level career appointment late last year.

And in mid-July, Jeffrey T. Salmon, who has a doctorate in world politics and was a speechwriter for Vice President Cheney when he served as defense secretary, had been selected as deputy director for resource management in the Energy Department's Office of Science. In that position, he oversees decisions on its grants and budget.

White House spokespeople are swearing up and down that all of these folks gained their jobs through an "open, competitive process." Actual scientists are not amused:

"It's ludicrous to have people who do not have a scientific background, who are not trained and skilled in the ways of science, make decisions that involve resources, that involve facilities in the scientific infrastructure," said James McCarthy, a Harvard University oceanographer who is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "You'd just like to think people have more respect for the institution of government than to leave wreckage behind with these appointments."

Anyway, as I understand civil-service laws, it would be fairly difficult for the Obama administration to dismiss these workers on political grounds, even if they're all unqualified hacks being handed plum positions as a reward for loyalty to the GOP. Of course, if these hires prove to be totally incompetent, that's another matter...

P.S. Shankar Vedantam tosses in some interesting research on how career bureaucrats are typically much more adept at managing government agencies and programs than political appointees are, even though the latter are usually better educated. (Of course, that doesn't seem to hold in the above examples...) As two experts on the topic conclude: "For all the hatred that political candidates aim at the Washington
bureaucracy during campaigns, political interference rather than
bureaucratic inertia appears to be the central driver of governmental
incompetence." Obama, it seems, would be well-served by making fewer political appointments and simply promoting more career civil servants to those jobs.

--Bradford Plumer

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