How Many More Mike Browns Are Out There?

A TIME inquiry finds that at top positions in some vital government agencies, the Bush Administration is putting connections before experience

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The White House makes no apologies for organizing government in a way that makes it easier to carry out Bush's agenda. Johnson says the centralization is "very intentional, and it starts with the people you pick ... They're there to implement the President's priorities." Johnson asserts that appointees are chosen on merit, with political credentials used only as a tie breaker between qualified people. "Everybody knows somebody," he says. "Were they appointed because they knew somebody? No. What we focused on is: Does the government work, and can it be caused to work better and more responsibly? ... We want the programs to work." But across the government, some experienced civil servants say they are being shut out of the decision making at their agencies. "It depresses people, right down to the level of a clerk-typist," says Leo Bosner, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) largest union. "The senior to mid-level managers have really been pushed into a corner career-wise."

Some of the appointments are raising serious concerns in the agencies themselves and on Capitol Hill about the competence and independence of agencies that the country relies on to keep us safe, healthy and secure. Internal e-mail messages obtained by TIME show that scientists' drug-safety decisions at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are being second-guessed by a 33-year-old doctor turned stock picker. At the Office of Management and Budget, an ex-lobbyist with minimal purchasing experience oversaw $300 billion in spending, until his arrest last week. At the Department of Homeland Security, an agency the Administration initially resisted, a well-connected White House aide with minimal experience is poised to take over what many consider the single most crucial post in ensuring that terrorists do not enter the country again. And who is acting as watchdog at every federal agency? A corps of inspectors general who may be increasingly chosen more for their political credentials than their investigative ones.

Nowhere in the federal bureaucracy is it more important to insulate government experts from the influences of politics and special interests than at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with assuring the safety of everything from new vaccines and dietary supplements to animal feed and hair dye. That is why many within the department, as well as in the broader scientific community, were startled when, in July, Scott Gottlieb was named deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, one of three deputies in the agency's second-ranked post at FDA.

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