Let’s Try Competence Over Patronage

By now the entire country is very angry at the poor preparation and even poorer response of all levels of government to Hurricane Katrina. Clearly there was more than enough failure to go around. But I would like to focus on the failure at the federal level.

Much of the blame at the federal level has fallen at the feet of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I’m in no position to dole out specific blame. However, I think it is appropriate to comment on the leadership at FEMA, specifically regarding their background and experience, as well as the process the Senate went through to review their qualifications for these positions.

The president’s nominee for FEMA director is subject to Senate confirmation. The process places the confirmation hearings before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. President Bush’s first FEMA head was Joe M. Allbaugh. The Senate reviewed Allbaugh’s nomination, including his resume, which noted that his most recent position was as Bush’s campaign manager. Given such credentials, the Senate confirmed him.

After a period of time, Allbaugh chose his college roommate Michael Brown, a lawyer and someone he obviously thought he could trust, as deputy. In the time just previous to joining FEMA, Brown was commissioner of an Arabian horse association for 10 years. When Allbaugh resigned to join a Washington, DC, lobbying group, the president chose Brown to head FEMA. Again, the Senate confirmed the nominee.

The Senate confirmation process is rather interesting. Nominees of all sorts have been rejected for legal improprieties, failure to pay a nanny’s Social Security taxes or a problem with drugs or alcohol. We are now observing the Senate hearings into chief justice nominee John Roberts. This column is being written as the hearings are ending. However, we can assume that because of what appear to be his superior qualifications, his qualifications will not be an issue. Indeed, it seems that the Senate rarely rejects a nominee based on qualifications or lack thereof. Instead, any rejection unrelated to ethical reasons usually is based on political differences.

What does this have to do with the U.S. Postal Service? Quite a bit. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is also the committee that approves nominations to the USPS Board of Governors and the Postal Rate Commission. Such approval has proved rather perfunctory.

But first, let’s review the nomination process. According to the 1970 legislative act that established the postal service, the members of the BOG and PRC must be “balanced” by political party. This means that for the nine-member board, no more than five can be from the same party. For the five PRC members, no more than three can be from the same party. Though the nominations come through the White House, the reality is that each party is responsible for putting forward its own nominees.

Frankly, history has shown that not all the nominees to the board or the PRC have had the background either through education, training or experience that a governor or a commissioner should have. But as long as they had a clean resume, the Senate approved them. As a result, we – the mailing industry – periodically have been saddled with nominees to these important posts who were not up to the task.

The so-called postal reform legislation, currently stalled in the Senate, gives the governors and commissioners more independent power and responsibility than exist in current law. Therefore, these positions will exercise even more power than in the past.

One current governor, John Walsh, a Democrat, has announced his resignation. It will be interesting to see whom the Democrats choose to fill that slot. It will be more interesting to see if the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate change the way they approach the confirmation process. Clearly they should.

Related Posts