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Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2003 / 11 Shevat, 5763

Jonathan Turley

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Consumer Reports


Public Payroll: a Family Affair; Nepotism in Washington poses a threat to institutional integrity


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | In Washington, the battle line is drawn between the forces of conservatism and liberalism. While patriotism is often cited as a shared value, there is only one "ism" that truly unites members of both parties in a common cause: nepotism. In the last two years, nepotism has flourished in Washington to a point that would make the most inbred potentate blush.

Just last week, former Sen. Frank Murkowski's handpicked successor was introduced to the nation. (Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska and, as such, was entitled to appoint his Senate replacement.) The new senator immediately assured the public that she "shared the same vision for [Alaska], the same values." She should: She also shares his DNA. Lisa Murkowski is the daughter of Frank Murkowski. It appears that the former Republican senator scoured the entire state of Alaska for a suitable replacement, only to find the best candidate in his own family. Imagine that. Frank Murkowski's extreme variation on "Bring your Daughter to Work Day" follows a long, dubious tradition of nepotism in Washington.

The current list of family appointments is too long to recount in its entirety. Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter was made a deputy assistant secretary of State. Cheney's son-in-law was given the plum position of chief counsel for the Office of Management and Budget. Secretary of State Colin Powell's son was made chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The administration has not neglected key members of the Supreme Court in access to the public trough of appointments. Both Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia (who voted with the majority in favor of President Bush in the 2000 election challenge) have watched their children sworn in to high-ranking positions. After a contentious confirmation hearing, Scalia's son Eugene was made the top lawyer at the Department of Labor. He has since resigned.

Rehnquist's daughter, Janet, was made inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department. (President Bush's father had given her a job on his White House staff.) In her short tenure, Janet Rehnquist has triggered an array of scandals, ranging from her storing a gun -- without a trigger lock and not in a gun safe -- in her office to more serious allegations of intervening in departmental cases to assist personal and political friends.

She is under federal investigation and, most recently, was hit with allegations of shredding incriminating documents relevant to that investigation.

Congress has proved particularly eager to respond to Bush's call for greater family values in government. Elaine Chao, the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is secretary of Labor. (Chao can claim experience to justify the position.)

Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, was not willing to rely on experience alone in securing an appellate judgeship for his son, David. Rather than recuse himself, Bunning interviewed 11 finalists for the position and, with McConnell, reduced them to three. Amazingly, Bunning's son made his dad's cut. He didn't make the American Bar Assn.'s cut. It found young Bunning to be unqualified, due to his lack of experience and the "serious doubts by respected members of the bench and bar" as to his intellectual and professional abilities. Bunning's colleagues confirmed him anyway.

Former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was able to secure confirmation of his son, Strom Jr., as U.S. attorney in his home state, despite the fact that the 28-year-old Strom Jr. barely outranked a Justice Department intern in experience.

Of course, many politicians in Washington do not try to appoint sons and daughters to high positions: Many do not have eligible sons or daughters. The father of Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. (R-Miss.) was nominated for an appellate judgeship and, after being denied confirmation by the committee, has just been renominated. Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota is pushing his sister, Sheryl Ramstad Hvass, for a judgeship. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, the problem is less about individual qualifications (or the lack thereof) as it is institutional integrity. With branches of government swapping siblings, spouses and offspring, our constitutional checks and balances become mired in personal debts and alliances.

Perhaps the election of the son of a former president inspired the shift toward a more aristocratic system of government. It could be worse. In the year 40, the Emperor Caligula appointed his favorite horse, Incitatus, to the Roman Senate. Incitatus proved to be lacking in the temperament or tact for public service. Of course, Incitatus had one positive characteristic: He was a gelding who could neither produce nor appoint offspring.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington, Law School. . Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Jonathan Turley