This article is part of the The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.
Everyone knows the obvious perks of the Presidency. The White House is a great place to entertain. Air Force One sure beats running to make connections on commercial flights. And motorcades never hit a traffic jam.
What most folks miss is that the job also comes with about 4,000 positions that can be doled out to early supporters, top donors and friends who want to slum it on the federal payroll for four or eight years. It’s vintage patronage straight out of the Tammany Hall era. But both parties take advantage of it, so little is done to reform it. These interlopers join the government on a temporary basis — but with a standing lunch reservation at The Palm.
When a President puts his pals into those positions and they do well, it brings new ideas to an admittedly sometimes staid organization, builds a sense of community among loyalists and installs White House eyes and ears throughout official Washington. When it goes wrong, however, it goes very wrong. And that’s what we’re watching play out in Washington as Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a mega-donor to Republican causes, is about to be the latest chum caught in this churn.
For weeks, the relatively new head of the U.S. Postal Service has been a target of Democrats for his proposed changes to the organization weeks before USPS is due to become the nation’s unwitting elections administrator. Now DeJoy finds himself caught up in fresh allegations that he funnelled his former company’s cash to candidates and causes. The vehicle? Allegedly, employee bonuses that were expected to go into a political kitty. The instances under scrutiny, as first reported by the Washington Post, pre-date DeJoy’s time in Trump’s orbit, but we are also less than eight weeks from Election Day and days away from the first mail-in votes being sent in via a system DeJoy himself has mucked up.
House Democrats and North Carolina’s Attorney General have announced their own inquiries into the possible campaign finance violations since the story was reported earlier this week. There’s bound to be recriminations over the headhunting firm hired by the post office’s independent board of governors. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t shielded DeJoy from earlier hearings about proposed changes to the mail services and isn’t likely to want everyone reminded that the man who oversaw DeJoy’s hiring is also a central player in a GOP super PAC with deep ties to McConnell’s own political machine. Trump on Monday seemed resigned to DeJoy’s untenable situation and said he would have to go if it could be proved he engaged in wrongdoing. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has indicated that nothing about the next two months will escape political haranguing. In short, DeJoy may just be too toxic to be worth defending, the latest casualty in the name of political expediency.
Some argue these meltdowns are simply inevitable. “If you look at our government, there are 4,000 political appointees. No other democracy that I’m aware of has anywhere close to that kind of political-spoils aspect of their government, and it doesn’t work,” says Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service, the city’s premier tracker of patronage. “If we really want a government that meets the challenge of the day, we need to make sure we have the very best leadership.”
Presidents of both parties have experience aplenty with patronage misfires. Some are relatively minor, such as Barack Obama’s selection of a donor to run the outpost in Luxembourg who was such a bully that career diplomats volunteered to go to Iraq or Afghanistan for a better environment, according to an internal investigation. Others are more egregious, such as George W. Bush’s elevation of his campaign manager’s long-time friend to run FEMA and the subsequent botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Clinton famously used sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom to thank donors and rewarded three early backers from New Hampshire with ambassadorships after the state gave his 1992 campaign a second-wind.
There are instances where political allies thrive in the job. Former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker leveraged her global stature to help Obama keep the business community appeased during Obama’s second term — and kept her personal jet at the ready for last-minute trips out of Andrews Air Force Base — and Obama’s appointment of Caroline Kennedy to Tokyo was a clear demonstration of his administration’s commitment to Asia and women. Margaret Spellings’ tenure at the Education Department under George W. Bush was a clear signal that he wanted one of his longest-serving aides and a trusted friend to take ownership of that policy portfolio.
Every President has the power to reward loyalty. But as with all things Trump, he’s leaning into what used to be a fringe perk and making it a major part of his approach to governing. According to the American Foreign Service Association, Trump has installed non-career foreign service offices into 43% of the top jobs at the State Department, a break from predecessors Obama (30%), Bush (32%) and Clinton (28%). You have to go back to President Ronald Reagan (38%) to find something as blatant in circumventing the career State Department corps.
And before you roll your eyes at career diplomats being sidelined for the super-rich as Beltway elitist squabbling, consider this: According to Marquette Law School associate professor Ryan Scoville’s research on diplomatic picks from 1980 until last year, the political hires are objectively less qualified. Now extrapolate that across all of the federal government that is confronting a global pandemic and argue that competence doesn’t matter.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the daily D.C. Brief newsletter.