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DOJ Scandal Part of Larger Pattern

The recent Justice Department report on political hiring practices focused on a small group of high-ranking former aides. But as Charlie Savage reports in today’s New York Times, Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson did not operate in a vacuum.

Credit: Flickr User: Francesco FedericoOver the past several years, there has been a series of stories revealing the White House’s aggressive political approach to governing.

There were, for instance, the briefings given by White House officials to senior officials (and top diplomats) in at least 15 government agencies on Republican electoral prospects. As one former Interior Department official told the Los Angeles Times, “We were constantly being reminded about how our decisions could affect electoral results.”  No orders were given to use government resources to help Republicans, but as the L.A. Times reports, “employees said they got a not-so-subtle message about helping endangered Republicans.”

And there was Karl Rove’s strategy of “asset deployment”: Political appointees from all around the government were told that the staging of official announcements, high-visibility trips and declarations of federal grants had to be carefully coordinated with the White House political affairs office.

The activity recently revealed at the Justice Department is of a different order: the direct politicization of non-political positions. Paul Light, a professor of government at New York University, told the New York Times that it’s all part of a larger pattern:

[Light] said the administration had fostered an atmosphere that encouraged blurring the line between politics and policy, as when Mr. Bush gave Karl Rove, his top political adviser, a policy-making role in the White House. That atmosphere, Professor Light said, increased the chances of scandal by over-eager political appointees who ended up embarrassing the president.

“Once you send this permissive agenda to agencies, you can’t control it,” Professor Light said. “You want them to toe the line, but they may innovate.”

In his testimony before the Senate yesterday, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine sharply criticized the department’s former leadership for being “negligent” in letting 30-something aides like Goodling perform such a major role in hiring without oversight. But it remains an open question whether Goodling simply operated under inadequate supervision or such negligence was by design.