For Scientific Integrity in Government, Fix Political Appointments Process

The list of scandals featuring senior U.S. officials who subsumed scientific integrity to their political or personal interests numbers 60 entries in a new report from a bipartisan task force that traced practices under the past three presidents. The examples range from downplaying the connections between climate change and carbon emissions under George W. Bush to understating the risks of fracking on drinking water under Barack Obama, and on to retaliation against economists, biologists and climate scientists under Donald Trump.

While the vast majority of the incidents listed occurred under the Trump administration, the task force warns that the pattern represents a kind of continuum: that abuses of the past weakened the guardrails of democracy to allow what’s happening today, and that the trend could escalate in future administrations unless Congress takes steps to strengthen safeguards. And at the root of each instance are the individuals who committed the abuses, whether the president or his political appointees.

The report, published today, is the second to emerge from the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, convened by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The task force is co-chaired by Preet Bharara, who served under Obama as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who served under George W. Bush as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We have big problems to solve in this nation,” the task force writes. “If we cannot agree on the facts underlying potential solutions to those problems, and we do not have qualified and dedicated people in place to develop and execute on them, we will imperil the future of our democracy.”

In addition to cataloging violations of scientific integrity, the report recommends ways to shore up the norms that have protected research and science in government. It suggests solidifying those norms into law and tightening standards to ensure that senior U.S. officials, particularly those confirmed by the U.S. Senate, are qualified and ethical.

“Recent administrations have manipulated the findings of government scientists and researchers, retaliated against career researchers for political reasons, invited outside special interests to shape research priorities, undermined and sidelined advisory committees staffed by scientists, and suppressed research and analysis from public view — often material that had previously been made available,” the task force writes.

The task force draws a straight line from the deterioration of professional qualifications and, in some cases integrity, in certain political appointments. The report notes examples such as some of Obama’s ambassadorial choices and Trump naming his son’s wedding planner to be a regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have expansive portfolios of responsibility that don’t appear to match their professional qualifications, the panel notes.

“Recent presidents have filled critical jobs with unqualified cronies while leaving other posts vacant, and have found ways to sidestep the Senate’s approval role, nullifying a crucial constitutional check,” according to the report. “For their part, lawmakers have rubber-stamped some nominees who are unqualified or have conflicts of interest while dragging their feet on considering others, often based on whether or not the Senate majority and the president share a party.”

The task force emphasizes throughout the report that the United States has a historical record of addressing systemic weaknesses after bouts of abuses, including setting standards for political appointments in the decades following the 1920s Teapot Dome scandal and passing the Ethics in Government Act and the Civil Service Reform Act after Watergate.

In addition to recommendations for preventing government research from being politicized, the task force outlines specific steps to strengthen the political appointment process, including:

  • Closing loopholes in the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act to prevent presidents from sidelining the Senate in senior-level political appointments.
  • Streamlining nominations and confirmations with measures such as reducing the number of appointments requiring Senate confirmation. (The report notes that, of about 4,000 political positions in the executive branch, 1,200 require Senate confirmation.)
  • Amending the federal anti-nepotism law to specifically state that it applies to internal White House appointments as well.
  • Reforming the security clearance process with steps such as aligning the level of background checks with the level of responsibility of the position, and requiring that the director of the White House personnel security office be a career professional.

The task force notes that comprehensive reform to strength America’s democratic and rule-of-law systems will require other, broader steps, such as cleaning up campaign financing, reining in presidential emergency powers and reducing the politicization of the judiciary. The panel’s recommendations on scientific integrity and political appointments would feed into such efforts overall.

The group also was wary of excessive bureaucracy, rejecting some ideas that would have been too burdensome and proposing streamlining in some cases, and members were cautious about the potential to undermine political leeway in decision-making, said Rudy A. Mehrbani, Spitzer Fellow and Senior Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Washington office, who served as a principal on the task force staff.

“We’re at a critical juncture in our politics and in our democracy,” Mehrbani said. “Do we respond to these abuses with reforms to rein them in, as we’ve historically done in the past, or do we continue along the path where the norms continue to erode, opening the door to further, more significant abuse?”

IMAGE: Demonstrators hold up signs as then-chief of the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee amid ethics scandals April 26, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC. Pruitt resigned three months later, leaving a trail of integrity issues ranging from his spending to evidence that he regularly undermined the agency’s scientists. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

  

About the Author(s)

Viola Gienger

Washington Editor for Just Security and research scholar at NYU School of Law. Follow her on Twitter (@violagienger).