Volume 7, Number 157
27 May 2007

In this issue

Corruption in America

by Loren Cobb

Not a week goes by, it seems, without yet another revelation of corruption or cronyism and incompetence within the leadership and executive strata of these once-great United States. Each case is cause for dismay and anger, of course, but recent revelations coming out of the Department of Justice are of a different order entirely. It appears that the very ability of the American system of justice to detect, prosecute, and punish political corruption has been compromised.
Teddy Roosevelt in 1896,
a champion of civil service reform.

Political corruption is more than individual acts of bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement. Any action which compromises the ability of the justice system to investigate and prosecute corrupt acts is, in my view, a higher and more dangerous form of corruption — no matter how well intentioned.

Political Appointees

Shortly after they first came to power during the era of Ronald Reagan, American small-government conservatives became frustrated with the intransigence of the civil service. They were having a hard time instituting the changes that they so badly wanted, because of resistance by career bureaucrats who did not agree with their political agenda. Margaret Thatcher, also newly in power in Britain, expressed similar frustration with the British civil service.

In response to powerful bureaucratic and legislative resistance to attempts to deregulate the state and dismantle the welfare system, a "scorched earth" approach to partisan politics appeared. In Margaret Thatcher's memorable words, "There are still people in my party who believe in consensus politics. I regard them as Quislings, as traitors... I mean it!"

In the years since Reagan and Thatcher, the breakdown of political civility and conflict resolution seems to have progressed much further in the USA than in Britain. Along with this has come a concentrated effort to increase the numbers of political appointees in government, so as to strengthen the hand of the president in imposing his will on the civil service. Thousands of governmental positions that were once protected from political influence are now appointed at the pleasure of the president, based primarily on party loyalty.

The "Plum Book" of presidentially-appointed federal positions, published every four years by Congress, shows an increase of 34% in the total number of non-competitive political appointments during only the first four years of George W. Bush's presidency (from 6,722 to 9,051). The next Plum Book, due out in 2008, will undoubtedly show a further dramatic increase.

The consequences of treating the executive services as an employment service for political hacks, cronies, ideologues, and wealthy campaign contributors have been predictable. America has suffered through incompetent emergency services at the time of Hurricane Katrina, poor long-range planning, suppression of govermental scientific results for political reasons, failures of environmental protection and food inspections, ham-fisted diplomacy, and a crescendo of allegations of illegal self-enrichment and blatant corruption.

A Little History

There was a time when the amount of corruption in the United States was much worse than today. The patronage system of government, in which jobs at all levels of government are awarded by the president as political favors, started under Andrew Jackson in 1829.

Corruption in the federal government rapidly increased after Jackson, reaching a climax in 1865-77 during the reconstruction period after the American Civil War. I believe that it worsened the polarization of the country between north and south, black and white, rich and poor. American corruption in this period reached levels that we now associate with many Third World governments.

In 1883, public disgust with corruption finally resulted in effective congressional action. The Pendleton Act created a small civil service that was protected from political influence, with promotions and hiring based on merit alone, overseen by the US Civil Service Commission. President Harrison named a historian from New York to the commission in 1889, who won national fame for his vigorous enforcement of the civil service laws. His name: Theodore Roosevelt.

The key provision of the Pendleton Act has been called the "ratchet" effect: to protect his friends and political appointees, an outgoing president could permanently move almost any position from the list of presidential appointments to the civil service. Once moved in this fashion, a position could not then revert to political control. The result was that within a generation a majority of all governmental positions were under strict civil service protection. The professionalism and transparency of the bureaucracy grew steadily thereafter.

The Hatch Act, first passed in 1939 and amended many times since, prohibited the diversion of public funds for electoral purposes, and even the participation of civil servants in electoral politics.

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 created the Senior Executive Service, which was supposed to consist of highly qualified executives who form a well-paid executive layer between the civil service and the trusted political policy-makers at the top. Unfortunately, political influence is now seeping down through the executive service and from there into the civil service.

Recent Attacks on the U.S. Judicial System

Perhaps no one personifies modern American corruption more than Monica Goodling, the young lawyer in the Bush administration who zealously weeded out all Justice Department prosecutors who did not meet her ideological and religious standards.

The tale begins early in 1986, when Oral Roberts University shut down its ailing law school and sent its library to the Christian Broadcasting Network University, a small biblically-oriented graduate school operated by Rev. Pat Robertson (quote: "There is no such thing as separation of church and state in the Constitution.")

In 1990, Robertson changed the name of his school to Regent University. In 1996 the university began upgrading its law school. Despite notable progress and massive infusions of money, Regent Law School is still rated in the bottom tier of law schools by US News & World Report.

As a student at Regent Law School, Monica Goodling worked for Kay Coles James, then Dean of Regent University's School of Government. In 2001, immediately after his election, George W. Bush appointed Kay Coles James as Director of the Office of Personnel Management, overseeing the hiring and promotion of all employees of the U.S. Civil Service. In short order one in every six graduates of Regent University were holding government jobs — including Monica Goodling.

After graduating from Regent in 1999, Monica Goodling worked in the 2000 Bush campaign as an "oppo" — an investigator into the personal lives of political opponents. Her mentor in the campaign was Tim Griffin, a veteran of the savage oppo campaign against Bill Clinton. On the strength of this experience she was appointed to the Justice Department by Attorney General John Ashcroft (quote: "Two things you find in the middle of the road: a moderate and a skunk.") One of her first acts was to cover up the female Spirit of Justice statue with blue drapery.

Goodling rose quickly in Ashcroft's Justice Department, soon moving into the division which evaluates personnel, which was then engaged in an extensive purge of career prosecutors from the civil rights division. Ashcroft eventually retired to become a professor at Regent University, and was replaced by Alberto Gonzales (quote: "There is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.") Gonzales made Goodling the White House liaison for the Justice Department, in which capacity she worked closely with Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff.

At roughly the same time in early 2006, two critical events occurred. First, an "unpublished" (i.e. secret) order from AG Gonzales gave the 32-year-old lawyer and her colleague Kyle Sampson nearly unlimited and unsupervised power to appoint or dismiss almost all political appointees in the Justice Department, including the heads of the divisions that handle corruption, civil rights, and environmental crimes, and also all U.S. Attorneys (the top federal prosecutors in each state). Second, an unnoticed change in Patriot Act eliminated the 120-day term limit on interim appointments of U.S. Attorneys.

These changes combined to give Goodling and Sampson unprecedented power over all prosecutors responsible for keeping political corruption in check in state and as well as federal government, with no requirement that their interim appointees ever pass Senate confirmation.

Among the list of U.S. Attorneys targeted for replacement were some who were alleged to have been too slow to prosecute Democrats for corruption, and some who were already investigating Republicans for possible corruption.

International Comparisons

In almost all countries of the world with substantial political corruption, there is weak or non-existent protection of the civil service and judicial systems from political influence. In many countries of Latin America, a newly elected president appoints his or her trusted associates not only to the vast majority of civil service jobs, but also to most of the jobs in state and provincial governments, and in city governments as well. Prosecutions for corruption can usually be suppressed before they start, by those same political appointees.

Countries which have the least political corruption have two characteristics in common: an absolute minimum number of political appointees, and vigorous non-partisan prosecution of politicians and bureaucrats who fall to temptation. In contrast, the United States government is increasing the number of political appointees every year, and now, under George Bush, politicizing the offices charged with prosecuting corruption.

If we in the United States want to avoid slipping back down into the cesspool of patronage politics, we need to reverse the growth of political influence in our civil and executive services, and in the judicial system. Clearly, this will be impossible as long as all important prosecutors at state and federal level are controlled by a 32-year-old political hack who sees domestic politics as an apocalyptic religious war between Good and Evil.

If the United States do not clean house very soon, and fix the laws which have permitted this travesty of government, then the lasting legacy of the Bush presidency may be a grim return to the bad old days of pervasive corruption and incompetence, a style of government which most Americans do not realize ever existed in their past.

Monica Goodling is now out of government, having testified to her transgressions before Congress, under a grant of immunity. The indefinite term for interim US Attorneys has been repealed. The immediate crisis has passed, but the American system of constitutional checks and balances on political power remains in danger from radical religious and ideological attack.

For more, see:

The Plum Book of US Government Policy and Supporting Politions. House and Senate Committees on Governmental Affairs, 1996, 2000, and 2004.
Colleagues Cite Partisan Focus by Justice Official, by Eric Lipton. The New York Times, 12 May 2007.
A Country Ruled by Faith, by Garry Wills. The New York Review of Books, vol. 53, #18, 16 Nov 2006.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
— Wendell Philips, 1852.
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Political appointment systems are certainly vulnerable to corruption and also frequently lead to bad government. But the inertia of the civil service is also a problem, especially when the mood of the country changes!

— Bob Sheffield, Boulder, CO.

I worked from 1965 to 1989 for the Federal Government, in the Agency for International Development, AID, in Latin America and Washington. Comparing my personal experience with the Nixon, Reagan, and first Bush administrations, with what I read and hear about what is happening today in the second Bush administration, I think there is a true difference in kind, not just a difference in degree, in not only corruption, but also in competence, between the two periods.

In the first period, AID was an independent agency devoted to economic development in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Rather surprisingly, it received better leadership under the Republicans than the Democrats, and ideology was more of a problem with the Democrats than the Republicans. From 1981 to 1985 under Reagan I was in Washington running a large food aid program, and both my immediate superior, a Republican from the Hill, and the head of the Agency, a Republican from Reagan's presidential campaign, gave full support to the program. They were smart, capable people and worked well in the bureaucratic battles to make it more oriented to economic development. I was then in Peru until 1989 under Reagan and the first Bush, and despite a difficult situation with the Peruvian government, which included nationalization of an oil company belonging to Enron, there was zero ideology forced on us from Washington. I thought that Reagan and his minions were so busy with El Salvador and Nicaragua that they had no time left for us.

Now, under the second Bush administration, AID hardly exists, as it is part of the State Department, has little staff, and mostly makes contracts with private firms to cary out the political goals of the administration. It seems to me that now a Republican ideology that government should be small because it is inherently incompetent, has taken over, and managers are almost encouraged to do a bad job so as to prove that their ideology is correct. This is the difference in kind from the earlier administrations, where the Republican political appointees, regardless of competence, worked to support the missions of their agencies, and were not partisans of reducing the size of government, at least in the agencies where they worked.

— Bill Rhoads.

After reading this letter a couple of times, coupled with the reader's comments from other Letters, I find myself at odds with what Quakers believe in today's time. What you and others write is not what I find in my heart. I cannot decide if I am more concerned about you, or me. If this reflects the current state of Quakerism, my search is not over. I can not continue to get this email.

— Richard S. Parry, Atlanta, GA.

Reply: Richard, I do not speak for Quakers generally. As you can see from these comments, many disagree with my opinions. — Loren.

Regarding your quotes about the Constitution (no declaration of separate church and state, no explicit grant of habeas corpus), you surely realize that these are factually correct. Anyone who looks them up will discover this. If they are predisposed to question your premise, this will be taken as evidence of your intellectual dishonesty. If you are going to invoke these quotes then you must explain why they are wrong/dishonest statements despite being factually correct...

You might also consider the example of Republican Rome. Consuls and Senators would constantly face legal challenges to their actions. At the end of office one might be hauled in front of the Tribune and banished until one's friends could secure a law to bring you back. I fear we may be falling into this situation — that whenever one party is thrown out of office the other will first investigate its predecessor for any and all potential transgressions, and then lay groundwork to prevent investigation of its own transgressions for as long as possible...

— An anonymous reader from The Motley Fool.

Reply: Your points are well taken. Those two quotes are narrowly correct, but deliberately misleading. My only excuse for not discussing side issues is the pressure of too much to say and too little space in which to say it. — LC.

Assaults on the integrity of the civil service are repeated and come under both parties. In modern times, the worst attempt was under the Reinventing Government drive of Vice President Al Gore. He wanted to pretty much eliminate civil service protections altogether. In addition, he wanted to cut in half the number of auditors watching (he was one of only three Members of Congress to oppose the Inspector General Act). Fortunately, his proposals went nowhere and he eventually had a falling out with President Clinton, reducing his power to near nothing.

Many of these attempts, as currently, meet strong opposition and buses get curtailed. But, as the article points out, one problem area is the steadily increasing number of political appointments (which has been increasing under administrations of both parties). It is even worse in some States, such as my home state of Maryland (one of the country's most corrupt), where a significant portion of the government work force are "at-will" [i.e. patronage – Ed.] employees, including many who are not in management positions.

— Bill Samuel.

You make some great points on the level of corruption which currently resides in the system. God knows the Bush administration has taken an already corrupt system much further than any of us could have imagined. And while we can to some degree blame the administration and plenty who preceded them for their machinations, we still must concede that the system itself is inherently corrupt. It is corrupt because we the people allow for a system that can and will control us and our neighbors. Even given all the things that Ronald Reagan did which I and many conscientious people consider wrong, I must give him credit for one position:

"There is no problem with government; government is the problem."

But that assertion shouldn't belong to the right only. It is true for all of us. It should be apparent to everyone that our system is badly broken. I believe it can only be repaired by being peacefully dismantled. My hope is that we may visualize and indeed produce a better system dependent more on the voluntary and well-intentioned actions of "we the people" and less on a violent and corrupt central government. I believe anything less is unbecoming of our potential, and inferior to our faith. Namaste,

— Rodney Owen, Friendship Friend's Meeting, Greensboro, NC.

The Cobb article on corruption relates some matters of interest. However his omissions and thus conclusions are glaring mistakes. His definitions of corruption are correct. His assertion that mass corruption in the national government started with Jackson is untrue. The corruption and abuses by Samuel Chase [US Supreme Court Justice from 1796 to 1811] as a circuit judge were atrocious. 

The peace that the Quakers have long had a reputation for pursuing, can not come through obedience to government, but only by obeying God's instructions, starting with the Fourth Commandment. If enough people were to use rational logic when reading scripture, especially by giving primacy to the Word, then we would not be oppressed by government corruption.

The solution to corruption is to obey God and Christ and kick out this government that claims the right to govern us on the basis of declaring martial law so that they can inflict genocide on us as they have done in Kenya and Uganda by the AIDS virus they created at Fort Detrick.

Those who truly know Christ say that you who falsely teach deserve the worst of the corrupt government's tyranny and enslavement.

You are audacious even to discuss the corruption you worship on Sundays, much less object to it. It is only those of us who oppose it by worshipping God on the Sabbath that have the right to complain about corruption. We would abolish men's governments as Christ commands and live under God's economy and government. Power must vest in God and individual people to thwart Satanic and governmental corruption. 

— "Servant Two" at Helping Hand Church [received 19 June 2008]

Reply: Thank you for writing, and for suggesting that we deserve the worst of a corrupt government's tyranny and enslavement.

I heartily agree with you that we should use rational logic when reading scripture. But if I read your letter correctly, you want your church to control the shape of government and the economy as it deems fit and proper, in light of its particular interpretation of scripture. In so doing you appear to be demanding absolute power in the name of God for your church, while forgetting that, as Lord Acton said, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If my reading of your letter is correct — and I hope it is not — then please rest assured that your church will be firmly opposed by me with every fiber of my Quaker being, no matter how many passages of scripture you cite. — LC.


Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

Editor: Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

Editorial Board

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Monthly Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board do not necessarily endorse the contents of any issue of The Quaker Economist.

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