Lessons Learned by Justice Hiring Scandal?

Washington Matters

Lessons Learned by Justice Hiring Scandal?

Let's hope that people don't just shrug off the recent inspector's general report that found political bias was used illegally in the hiring of important career jobs at the Justice Department as politics as usual. It's not -- and it would be dangerous to think it's in any way acceptable.

Filling the career ranks of any government agency according to a political test is illegal and damaging, but it's especially abhorrent at the Justice Department. There, lawyers and officials decide who and who not to go after and what types of cases to prosecute and what types to avoid.  As Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, points out in an op-ed piece The Washington Post today, it is nonpartisan career employees who help keep the department's legal judgments honest and free of politics.

There is another insidious effect as well -- putting simple fairness and competency at risk. The IG report spells out how well-qualified lawyers were skipped over either because someone else was better connected politically or because of some perceived political flaw. One candidate was married to someone active in the local Democratic Party. Another was criticized for admiring Condoleezza Rice who is "pro-choice." In the case of immigration judges, whose decisions have a dramatic impact on the lives of those who appear before them, candidates were not chosen on the basis of their expertise but were drawn from names sent over by the White House and Republican members of Congress.

For a different example of how political considerations in hiring can have a devastating effect, read The Imperial Life Inside the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a former Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post. He details how experienced experts at the State Department and elsewhere were passed over for important posts in Iraq in favor of those who passed political litmus tests and how their lack of experience contributed to many of the early setbacks.

There's yet another risk -- escalating partisanship that becomes a never-ending cycle: The party in power tries to better secure that power in every conceivable way and the party out of power watches closely so it can do the same -- and then some -- when it finally succeeds in taking over the reins.

Democrats, who hope to control the White House and Congress after the November election, are properly outraged by the hiring abuses at the Justice Department. One would hope that the lesson learned is not only that the Bush administration overstepped its bounds -- but also that government can suffer sustained damage when officials give into the temptation to ignore or subvert rules intended to place checks on political power.