Schumer and Feinstein have acted in response to the Washington Post's story on how some of the most controversial of Bush's political appointees have burrowed into civil service positions, which I wrote about here, as it pertains to the Interior Department.
While their response is limited to yet another sort-of sternly worded letter, the good news is that they're paying attention:
Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote to Bush, saying that the recent transfers suggest a "regrettable, but entirely foreseeable" last-minute rush to fill jobs with administration allies. The senators urged Bush to keep his pledge of a smooth transition without partisan maneuvering.
"Today's report reveals that senior members of your administration are undermining your public commitment to ease the transition by reorganizing agencies at the eleventh hour and installing political appointees in key positions for which they may not be qualified," they wrote. "We respectfully urge you to stand by your public commitment to a smooth transition by directing executive agencies immediately to halt any conversions of political appointees to career positions."
Democrats on Capitol Hill and career employees in various agencies said the personnel moves come as administration officials scramble to complete policy and regulatory initiatives on issues including drinking-water standards, air quality at national parks, workplace safety and mountaintop mining.
The administration has been at this for a while, it turns out:
The Government Accountability Office has long tracked such political-to-career conversions, and it reported in May 2006 that during the first four years of the Bush administration, 144 political appointments were converted to career positions. Thirty-six were at the Health and Human Services Department, 23 were at the Justice Department, 21 were at the Defense Department and 15 were at the Treasury Department.
It's just now that the traditional media is really paying attention, because those last minute regulations the administration is pushing are so extreme and damaging. They certainly aren't focused on making drinking water safer, the air around national parks cleaner, workplaces more safe, and mountaintop mining curtailed.
The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing new air-quality rules that would make it easier to build coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and other major polluters near national parks and wilderness areas, even though half of the EPA's 10 regional administrators formally dissented from the decision and four others criticized the move in writing.
Documents obtained by The Washington Post show that the administration's push to weaken Clean Air Act protections for "Class 1 areas" nationwide has sparked fierce resistance from senior agency officials. All but two of the regional administrators objecting to the proposed rule are political appointees.
The proposal would change the practice of measuring pollution levels near national parks, which is currently done over three-hour and 24-hour increments to capture emission spikes during periods of peak energy demand; instead, the levels would be averaged over a year. Under this system, spikes in pollution would no longer violate the law.
In this case, the National Parks Conservation Association is poised to to file a petition for reconsideration with the agency should it approve the new rule. This would allow the Obama administration to overturn the rule when.
Dislodging entrenched civil service employes is a much tougher proposition (which is why they're doing it). At the very least, the move prevents Obama from getting his key people into these positions immediately to start dismantling some of the Bush administration's most damaging programs. But these holdovers can make policy-making more difficult, as Nina Mendelson, a professor at University of Michigan Law School, argues in an interview with the Washington Independent:
Civil servants might be enthusiastic implementers of a new initiative. On the other hand, a knowledgeable civil servant might publicly advocate against it within the agency (which can have some benefits in terms of forcing a political appointee to more thoroughly justify a new proposal) or can more quietly undermine it. My research suggests that quiet subversion can include heel-dragging, losing projects in the cracks, leaks or worse. (emphasis added)
The result of these burrowee tactics is to make it tougher for a new president to push the executive branch in the direction he wants. Mendelson laid out the details in her 2002 piece:
They appear to undermine the responsiveness of agency personnel to a new president; interfere with the new president’s efforts to set policy; and impeded the new president’s ability to set her own policy agenda.