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FEMA hurricane response puts spotlight on political patronage jobs

From Candy Crowley and Sasha Johnson
CNN Political Unit

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Michael Brown defends FEMA's hurricane response and his background before a House panel.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The political finger-pointing that evolved in Hurricane Katrina's wake not only exposed deficiencies in the government's disaster preparedness, but put a spotlight on how and why some Bush administration officials got their jobs.

"The idea of 'cronies' has been around for a long time," said Larry Noble, president of the Center for Responsive Politics, a government watchdog group. "Every president that comes in has a lot of political appointees that they can bring in with them."

Michael Brown's rise to the top position at FEMA, critics say, came about because of his close relationship with Joe Allbaugh, who happened to be President George W. Bush's campaign director in 2000, and who subsequently was installed as the head of FEMA in 2001.

"I picked him because he is a good man who knows how to run a very important organization and I am proud of my friend," said President Bush when he chose Allbaugh for the job.

Cronyism, or showing favor to old friends or family, is nothing new in Washington. President John F. Kennedy made his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, attorney general in 1961 and President Bill Clinton put his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton in charge of his health care plan, arguably one of the largest policy initiatives of his first term.

Taking care of political friends or people who worked on the winning presidential campaign is so common that the government publishes a must-read book every four years titled the "United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions" or the "Plum Book."

The book is essentially a catalogue of want ads. It lists the roughly 3,000 political appointee jobs that the president or his White House personnel office are responsible for filling. They range from the secretary of education to the commissioner of the Marine Mammal Commission.

"You can go through it and select the position and the title that you might like to have, like the associate deputy under secretary of interior," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

The drive to fill these positions sometimes can emphasize the political loyalty of the candidate versus their experience.

"It's one thing to bring in friends, people you are close to who are qualified for the job," said Noble. "It's another thing for people to be getting the job only because they are friends and they are not qualified for the job."

Brown's handling of the Katrina aftermath exposed his lack of experience in disaster management and opened other Bush political appointees to scrutiny.

Critics single out the nomination of Julie Myers as a case where political connections trump qualifications.

Myers, 36, is in line to become the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the Department of Homeland Security.

Democrats say her resume is too thin for such an important job and her positions with the White House, Justice and Treasury departments in no way prepare her to deal with immigration and terrorism issues or to manage roughly 20,000 employees and a $4 billion budget.

Myers, who worked for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, is the niece of outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers and recently married Chertoff's chief of staff John Wood.

A former colleague of Myers' dismissed complaints that she is unqualified and told Time magazine Myers is "assertive and strong and smart."

Light doesn't believe the Bush administration is purposefully setting out to install unqualified people in government positions.

"I don't think it's really so much they sit around saying 'what kind of loser can we put in this job' but it's a lack of attention to the need for somebody who knows the job," said the New York University professor.

"So basically you go to the political qualification first and you don't think too much about the expertise needed."

Light said he believes that because there is no "heir apparent" in the White House, some qualified Republicans are reluctant to sign on for a job they know will end in three years.

He also said the Bush administration puts a premium on the loyalty of its appointees, more so than any administration he's studied -- a fact that may scare off some more politically moderate potential appointees.

"If you don't believe what the president believes or more generally what the White House believes, you're not going to get a second look and that narrows the pool to a very small number of people," Light said.

"I think that is starting to show here now in jobs where the administration would like to have some quality and would like to have some expertise."

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