Sunday, February 17, 2008

New Yorker Cartoon

by Roz Chast, 2008
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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Extreme Ironing has reached Japan

For info on this extreme sport in Japan go to

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Oz Effect

Metro Goldwyn Meyer

Near the end of MGM's “The Wizard of Oz” there's an iconic scene which has left several generations of viewers and voters with an erroneous view of how the US presidency works. In the Emerald City's great hall Dorothy and her three friends are finally granted their audience with the wizard. His giant visage bellows “I am Oz, the great and terrible,” from the end of the great hall as the terrified petitioners tremble. Suddenly Toto pulls back a curtain in the corner to reveal a gray-haired little man in a suit who manipulates levers and knife switches in a booth while talking into a microphone.

That's how a lot of voters (and some political commentators, who ought to know better) view the presidency – as though the man or woman who moves into the Oval Office next January 20th takes over the controls and, after a brief learning period, begins steering the ship of state on its new course. In fact, the new president will move into the oval office already knowing that there won't be a console of government hidden in the corner from which he or she can run the country. Instead, the vast Federal bureaucracy, with its thousands of departments, agencies, bureaus and commissions and its millions of employees is steered by several thousand political appointees, who are selected, screened and assigned to noncompetitive appointments in senior positions. About 20 percent of those positions require senate confirmation; the rest are filled at the discretion of the new president and his cabinet and key staff. The Office of Presidential Personnel receives and staffs applications for senior executive positions in over 100 departments, bureaus, commissions and agencies ranging in size from the Defense Department (655) to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2).

Naturally, preference is given to the party faithful and to significant party donors and to their friends and relatives. When an administration changes hands, every appointee of the previous administration, regardless of party, must either be replaced or reappointed by the next chief executive. This process usually takes many months, and involves the input of major party officials as well as new cabinet appointees and the White House staff. The summary of positions available for noncompetitive appointment is called the “Plum Book”. The book published at the beginning of the 2004 Bush term listed 9051 full and part-time senior positions. The Office of Personnel Management explains the process in this way:

Every four years, just after the Presidential election, the "United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions" is published. It is commonly known as the Plum Book and is alternately published between the House and Senate.

The Plum Book is a listing of over 9,000 civil service leadership and support positions (filled and vacant) in the Legislative and Executive branches of the Federal Government that may be subject to noncompetitive appointments. These positions include agency heads and their immediate subordinates, policy executives and advisors, and aides who report to these officials. Many positions have duties which support Administration policies and programs. The people holding these positions usually have a close and confidential relationship with the agency head or other key officials.”

So voters, when assessing today's competing presidential candidates, need to consider the impact of each candidate's potential political appointees. Will Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or John McCain attract, recruit and appoint well-qualified executives to oversee the armed forces, the postal service and the US government's permanent work force of 1,800,000 career civil service employees? How strong is each candidate's network, how deep is their bench of qualified, experienced executives who are interested and available for a Federal job which offers a modest salary (see White House staff salaries), background checks and in many cases, Senate hearings and extensive press scrutiny? To be successful, a president must place good wizards in key positions at those thousands of control panels. When you select a candidate, you are also approving the noncompetitive hiring of many of their key state and national campaign workers and contributors.

In order to envision the disastrous potential of this patronage process when it goes awry, just remember the phrase "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.”

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Our Travels