Policy Today magazine cover showing people hoeing in a field
April 5, 2006

"One person's crony is another person's trusted advisor.”

Making it to the top of the political mountain in America takes more than a splash of charisma and a bag of ideas. More and more, you need the right connections to succeed in the political jungle. And with presidential appointees like Michael Brown and Alberto Gonzales grabbing the wrong kind of headlines, people on both sides of the aisle are growing uneasy.

Scorned for passing over highly qualified career civil servants in favor of considerably less-qualified colleagues, the Bush administration has opened itself up for continued criticism whenever one of its network blunders. Is it the practice or the people? Decades of history suggest that this manner of staffing diplomatic and government agency posts has long shaped presidential politics, notwithstanding the considerations of our social contract and electoral accountability.

"One person's crony is another person's trusted advisor," says former congressman Jim Rogan
(R-CA). "That's always been an important component of anybody in leadership, and as long as the appointees aren't just a bunch of buddies, flunkies and boot-lickin' sycophants, then it can sometimes work very well."

Over time, controversial presidential appointments have engendered both positive and negative consequences. Look what happened when Bill Clinton brought in childhood friends Thomas "Mack" McLarty as chief of staff and Bruce Lindsey as deputy counsel, or when Reagan chose Edwin Meese and William French Smith as attorneys generals. For Jimmy Carter, it was Bert Lance, and for LBJ, Abe Fortas. JFK relied upon brother Bobby.

Further back, Woodrow Wilson had Colonel House. Andrew Jackson was infamous for his Kitchen Cabinet, as was Warren G. Harding for the Ohio Gang. FDR appointed numerous colleagues to help deliver his New Deal. Cronyism, it seems, is just business as usual.

Jobs for the boys

In the beginning, today's practice of cronyism was referred to as "patronage." Then and now, myriad factors motivated such appointments. Overall, says Rogan, "the purest act of patronage is repaying someone for helping you get elected."

Even Honest Abe Lincoln gave jobs to the boys who helped him win the presidency. But Lincoln also appointed his former opponents to the highest positions in his cabinet, enabling him to keep his enemies close while marshalling their competencies to help preserve the Union and win the war.

Nonetheless, reciprocity and cronyism are inherently linked, and cronyism itself is an endemic problem to democracy, says John DiJoseph, adjunct professor of history at Loyola College in Maryland, and author of Jacques Maritain and the Moral Foundation of Democracy.

Describing cronyism as "favoritism provided to fellow faction members by government officials," DiJoseph notes that in The Federalist No. 10, James Madison defined "factions" as political parties that destroy good government. Madison took his cue from George Washington, who foresaw factions as harmful to the common good, and labored to thwart the sprout of political parties.

"All governments—federal, state and local—are infected by factions," DiJoseph says. "Obviously, if you are a member of a faction, you want to put other like-minded members in leadership positions to move your agenda forward."

Indeed, whether you're talking to the hardest on the right or the farthest to the left, says Rogan, "Both will say the same thing: 'I need to make more political appointments because I've got a bunch of damn Democrats—or Republicans—running this show!'"

Layered protections

When under-qualified allies are appointed to positions better filled by experienced career civil servants, "it results in inefficient government and wasteful government expenditures," says DiJoseph. Other consequences range "from bad policy to just plain operational incompetence—as in the case of Michael Brown," says former congressman Steve Kuykendall (R-CA).

"These are reasons why you have to separate cronyism from positions in which the appointee needs a high level of operational expertise," says Kuykendall, who served on committees including Transportation and Infrastructure, Science, and Armed Services. "That's not to say you can't get that with a political appointee, but you really need to scrutinize what the job entails."

One protection against rampant cronyism would be to limit the number of people allowed to be politically appointed, Rogan says. Best practices might also mirror the organizational structures of such agencies as the DOD, the Commerce Department, and the Treasury, where top positions are filled by civil service, military and others with the requisite expertise. Few of those jobs are appointed, Rogan says, and the organizational chart itself ensures smooth operations.

"For example, the secretary may be the mouthpiece and the undersecretary may provide overall guidance, but the principal deputy two levels down is the one with the technical competence, the one who really knows how to run the department," says Rogan, who formerly served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Not only in America

Nevertheless, cronyism seems widespread at all levels of government, everywhere in the world. DiJoseph warns that unless Americans step up to stop the cycle in this country, "it's only going to get worse, because cronyism breeds corruption."

He points to France as an example. For decades, cronyism, bribery and corruption have blighted French politics. Part of the problem is that French citizens don't view corruption as a cardinal sin. Similarly, the lax attitude of American voters perpetuates the problem of cronyism in our governments.

"American voters do not demand accountability from their leaders," DiJoseph says. "A great majority are apathetic, believing that when candidates run for office, they make promises they're not going to keep, and once elected, they and their friends do whatever they want."

However, Americans can change their government, he says. For starters, they can break all ties to factions.

"It would seem that voters are starting to do that, based on polls that reveal bitter dissatisfaction with both parties, and statistics that show many more voters registering independent," DiJoseph says.

Meanwhile, Americans don't have to be intimidated by cronyism, says Rogan, "because we have the protection of free speech, and free press." Anyone can voice discontent and incite action just by calling a reporter, he says. The problem is, not enough people do.

About Victoria C. Reynolds

Victoria Reynolds is a freelance writer living in Washington D.C.