Members Not on Short List

Posted May 21, 2003 at 6:38pm

As the self-proclaimed delegator-in-chief, President Bush has not been particularly fond of plucking Members of Congress to help run his administration.

Only a pair of defeated Senators — Attorney General John Ashcroft and Energy Secretary Spence Abraham — and former House Democrat-turned-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (Calif.), all out of office before joining the White House team, are among those with top-level posts in the Bush administration. And few Congressional Republicans expect Bush to turn to the Hill to fill the high-profile openings now awaiting a White House selection.

It’s a distinct departure from the early years of President Bill Clinton, where a handful of prominent Members were pulled off active duty on Capitol Hill and placed in top positions. And it’s not quite up to pace with Bush’s father’s administration, when then-President George H.W. Bush nominated four recent Members for Cabinet posts.

For the most part, Hill Republicans say they’re not upset and don’t feel overlooked, and instead point to the razor-thin partisan margins — particularly for the past two and a half years in the Senate — as the major roadblock between Congress and an administration appointment.

“You can’t expect a president to be picking Members of Congress from his own party when the margins are this close,” said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), a 30-year Senate veteran dealing with his fifth different GOP administration. Domenici noted that any GOP Senator from a state with a Democratic governor would instantly be ruled out, because a newly appointed Democratic replacement would deadlock the chamber at 50-50 and make it even more difficult to move the Bush agenda.

“They can’t afford to pick any Republican up here in the Senate,” noted Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who at one point a few years back had his name floated as a potential Supreme Court nominee.

Still, the Bush White House hasn’t managed to find a single Senate Republican from a solid red state for a leading administration role and not one sitting House Member has been given a top-ranking spot.

Now, Mitch Daniels is stepping down as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and on Wednesday former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) announced her decision to leave as head of the Environmental Protection Agency next month. In addition, Republican insiders expect Bush to soon be appointing a new chairman of the Republican National Committee — a position that has sometimes gone to a GOP Member — in anticipation of former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot’s move from the RNC to the presidential re-election campaign.

In making his first major personnel decision as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1992, Clinton turned to Capitol Hill for his running mate, then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), who had just been re-elected to his second term in the fall of 1990. Clinton then filled several critical positions with active Members.

Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), then the chairman of the House Budget Committee, left to take over OMB and eventually served a hitch as White House chief of staff. Then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) gave up his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee to serve several years as Treasury secretary.

Les Aspin (D-Wis.) gave up his position as chairman of House Armed Services to become Defense secretary. After leaving the House to become Agriculture secretary, Mike Espy (D-Miss.) ran into ethical troubles and an independent counsel investigation, only to be replaced by ex-Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.). Democrats eventually lost Gore’s, Bentsen’s, and Aspin’s seats.

After the abysmal 1994 midterm elections, Clinton appointed Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) as Democratic National Committee chairman, although he kept his Senate seat.

Some Republicans say the former governor of Arkansas had no relations with the Hill and therefore needed to appoint veterans of the political labyrinth to his inner circle. “Clinton needed those guys. He was new and fresh,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Bush’s father, however, also turned to the Hill for top advisers. In selecting his Defense secretary in 1989, Bush the elder first opted for the recently retired Sen. John Tower (R-Texas). When that nomination went up in flames involving allegations about Tower’s personal life, Bush went back to the Hill for a choice that could reliably get through the confirmation process: then-Rep. Dick Cheney (Wyo.), the House Republican Whip.

Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, noted that some former House Members from the previous three decades occupy important positions — including Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Ill.), Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (Pa.) and Mineta (D-Calif.) — and added that he preferred not to have any more open seats to have to defend.

“I like the way it is. I think we’re doing great,” Reynolds said.

Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) gave up his House seat after just two terms to take over the Drug Enforcement Agency, and is now a under secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. After losing a high-profile House race, James Rogan (R-Calif.), a former Clinton impeachment manager, was given the top post at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

And, in a bipartisan overture, Tony Hall (D-Ohio) became ambassador to the United Nations food and agriculture programs.

Hagel offered another rationale for why so few Members of Congress have joined the top ranks of the Bush administration: They don’t want to leave the Hill and give up their independence.

“We’re pretty independent people, and we like that independence,” Hagel said.

And this White House has made loyalty a top priority, something one former Member learned the hard way. Former Rep. Mike Parker (R-Miss.) took over the Army Corps of Engineers in 2001, but was pushed out of office last year after testimony to Congress that ran counter to the Bush administration’s position.

As Hagel put it, once a Member leaves the Hill and goes into the administration, there’s little freedom left. “Whatever the White House tells you to do or say, you do.”