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In the Crossfire

Bush's bonuses for political appointees

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The New York Times revealed Wednesday that the Bush administration has reversed a Clinton-era policy and is restoring the allocation of cash bonuses for about 2,000 politically appointed federal workers. Is this a bad practice or a deserved reward?

Ann Lewis, the former White House communications director and former counselor to President Clinton, and Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway go head-to-head on the issue with "Crossfire" hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

BEGALA: Kellyanne, Tucker a moment ago slammed hundreds of thousands of really terrific, hard-working people who work for you and I, the taxpayers. Let me tell you about a few of them. A CDC -- Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) -- health tech makes $30,597 a year. He or she may save your life and mine if there's a biochemical terrorist attack.

A border patrol (agent) makes $30,466 a year. Why should (these workers) get stiffed on their pay raise when political hacks who make $140,000 a year could get a bonus of up to $25,000 more?

CONWAY: Let's talk about who exactly would be covered under the restoration of this policy. It was a bipartisan policy that existed through every administration in recent times except the Clinton administration. Let's talk about who this includes.

You're adding 2,000 appointees to the 1.8 million civil servants who already qualify for these bonuses, Paul. And many of them are in the Department of Justice. Many of them are really the 21st century equivalent of combat troops because we're fighting this new war.

They are the attorneys, they are the counter-terrorism experts, they are the people who, post-September 11 (2001), have been defending these borders and making this a safer place. If you're going to deny them a couple extra dollars, which, for your salary, would be like the equivalent of a gold star, then I would say shame on those who would deny them that. I want them to have the extra money.

BEGALA: Is it shame on those who then deny the front-line workers, not the political hacks, the pay raise they were promised by the Congress of the United States? Come on, you're one of the best pollsters in the business. You don't even have to take a poll to know (that it's wrong to tell) front-line workers making $30,000 or $40,000 and risking their life, that they have to get stiffed on their pay raise, even though Congress promised it, and then tell political hacks, who are making $120,000 or $140,000, they should get a huge bonus. That just doesn't work, does it?

CONWAY: Sure. But it actually mixes up the two things because it has been restored as of today. (The bonuses are) something that had existed except for the eight years in the Clinton administration. I think the burden really lies on that administration to say why the people who were appointees in that time -- maybe the two of you can speak up on that -- why the appointees in that time were being denied the incentive to really stay and be public servants.

Look, you can say that the president stiffed them. He didn't. I mean, these are individuals who are compensated and will continue to have just compensation. And we all know that -- we all know it's easier to run our mouths ...

BEGALA: He did stop them from getting the pay raise Congress promised them, right?

CONWAY: No, he did not.

BEGALA: Of course he did.

CARLSON: He dropped about one percentage point, Paul, as you know.

Now Ann, you talk about front-line workers. You and I both know who the front-line workers are. They're the ones in the White House, in the situation room. Many of them are political appointees, but they are the ones running the war on terror. They're not unionized and they're not a Democratic special interest group. So they shouldn't get raises?

LEWIS: Wait a minute. The front line-workers to me are people (who work in places) like the police and fire departments that were told this week by the White House that they're not going to get the money that Congress had voted for them that's being held back. Look at what we've learned in the last week, because, you know what, this is about values and this is about priorities.

This is about a million American families that aren't going to have any money coming into the house three days after Christmas because this White House wouldn't keep unemployment benefits going. This is about, again, local police and fire departments that aren't going to get those grants that they thought they were going to get. This is about those civil servants, those people who work every day, the people Paul was just talking about, who are getting cutbacks in their cost-of-living increase.

This isn't even a raise. This is a cost of living. But where do we find the money? We find money for political appointees. That is values upside-down.

CARLSON: You are one of these people, and, you know, no one is going to stand up for these people because they're political appointees. But these are people who work a lot harder than you and I do. You were one of them, you know. These people work 20 hours a day defending the country. And I want to read you this quote from a Justice Department official who just puts it all into perspective.

To The New York Times he says, "I was giving out bonuses for career people and not giving bonuses to political staff, who often worked a lot harder than the career people did. It was frustrating, and it's an outrage, and it's been corrected." What's wrong with it?

LEWIS: You know what's wrong with that? And you're right, Paul and I were political appointees. We wanted those jobs. We worked for the president and we were proud to have those jobs. When the term was over, we moved back into the private sector.

Compare that to government workers who are going to be there, who have made the decision they're going to work for you and me all the time. They don't get the chance to make a lot more money, as those who can go in and out. We can't mix it up because there's only one pot of money.

When you make bonuses up to $25,000 available for political appointees, by definition there is less money available for those people who show up and go to work every day and who really are on the front line. And that's where the money ought to go.

CONWAY: The press secretary, Ari Fleischer, made very clear today that this is going to apply to very few people. And the $25,000 number is just out there because it's based on merit.

BEGALA: Very few political cronies are going to be getting $25,000 bonuses.

CONWAY: Because it's based on merit. They're not cronies. It's based on merit.

BEGALA: No, it's based on politics. They're political appointees.

CONWAY: It's not based on politics.

BEGALA: You asked a moment ago why it was stopped by President Clinton. It was stopped by President Clinton because President Bush the first, in a remarkably sleazy way, abused it. In the last five minutes, literally -- I'm not speaking figuratively now -- literally, in the last five minutes of Bush's presidency, he was handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars of bonuses to political hacks and cronies.

CONWAY: Wait, political hacks -- right. I mean, my god, I really don't think that you want to compare the last-minute deals of the Bush administration or the Clinton administration.

BEGALA: Yes, I do. Yes, I do, Kellyanne. Because (George H.) Bush so abused this, and now junior, who seems to be devoting his life to not making his father's mistakes, is going right back to making one of the most tawdry mistakes of his father's presidency.

CONWAY: No. I disagree with that completely because you make it sound like Dick Cheney has his hand in the Salvation Army's cookie jar or something.

BEGALA: The taxpayers' cookie jar.

CONWAY: These are people who are serving the taxpayers, people who are, like the two of you did, giving up untold amounts of money and power that you can be making in the private sector, and that I hope you both are now. But, just like the private sector uses incentives to attract and retain qualified employees, the federal government must do that ...

CARLSON: Let me just ask a question of Ann Lewis here. I have a quote from Marion Berry. Not the disgraced former mayor of Washington, D.C., but another Democrat. This one from Arkansas. He's a member of Congress.

I think this gets right to the point about political federal workers: "You would have to be crazy to take this job for the pay scale," he says. "Many members of Congress have our wives work, just like everyone else has ... wives work to pay the bills."

The point of this is that people don't go into service in the government, in a political capacity, for the money, ever. In fact, they suffer for lack of money, and they get paid a lot less than (if) they weren't working for the government. Why not reward them for hard work?

LEWIS: You've got it exactly right. You know what, we political appointees, we go in because we want to serve our president, because we believe in our president. We want to make a difference. And that's why the bonuses, since there's always a finite pot, the limited amount of money should go to the civil servants, to the government workers, because they're going to be there. They were there before we got there, they're there after we get there, and they don't have the chance to move out and wind up being a host on "Crossfire."

They don't have that same opportunity. That's where the money ought to go.

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