Saturday, November 25, 2006


By William Fisher

The best news to come out of Washington since the mid-term elections is the rumor that Robert Gates, if confirmed by the Senate to be our new Secretary of Defense, will fire all Pentagon political appointees.

If President Bush has heard this rumor, he seems to be stubbornly sticking with his sterling slate of appointments.

Because the worst news to come out of Washington this week was the appointment of Eric Keroack to head family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. He will be heading the federal office that finances birth control, pregnancy tests, breast cancer screening, and other health care services for five million poor people annually, and advising Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt on family planning issues.

Unfortunately, Dr. Keroack’s appointment does not require Senate approval – because come January 4, when the Democratic Party majority takes over, he wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance.

So if anyone expected a kindler, gentler, more bipartisan George Bush following his election-day disaster, they’re in for a shock. W’s strategy is to circumvent the Congress altogether, wherever possible. Because Dubya’s first appointment since election day rises even beyond the level of Michael Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.

And, somewhere down the road, we can expect to hear The Decider proclaim, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Eric!”

Even before he moves into his new office, he could have earned such high praise from the President simply on the basis of his resume. Kerouack, you see, is, according to the New York Times, “a doctor affiliated with a group vehemently opposed to birth control and someone nationally known for his wacky theory about reproductive health.”

The Times details his qualifications: Medical director of an organization called A Woman’s Concern, which runs pregnancy counseling clinics in Massachusetts. Its counseling consists of trying to persuade women not to have abortions, and includes the totally discredited old wives tale that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer.

Women’s Concern also has a policy against dispensing contraception, even to married women. Its Website claims that the distribution of contraceptive drugs or devices is “demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness.”

Dr. Keroack has also pushed the quack-science argument that sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry in a way that makes it harder for women to form bonding relationships.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, didn’t The Decider decide that Ellen Sauerbrey was the most qualified candidate to head the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, a key agency for responding to foreign disasters?

Her qualifications? She is a former member of the Republican National Committee and was Bush's Maryland state campaign chairwoman in 2000. She has been a conservative activist for decades but has no experience mobilizing responses to humanitarian emergencies. The refugee bureau is a complex agency with a broad portfolio. Past administrations, Republican and Democratic, have generally turned to people with technical expertise to head it.

Sauerbrey’s appointment came just about the time Bush decided to nominate Julie Myers to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. ICE is the Homeland Security agency responsible for tracking down money-launderers, people who break U.S. sanctions, and traffic in human being. With 20,000 employees, ICE is the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government, and the sole enforcer of U.S. immigration laws.

Myers' qualifications? She was a former chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (when he ran the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice), is married to Chertoff's chief of staff, and is the niece of the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers.

And let’s not forget Dr. W. David Hager to head up the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. This committee makes crucial decisions on matters relating to drugs used in the practice of obstetrics, gynecology, and related specialties, including hormone therapy, contraception, treatment for infertility, and medical alternatives to surgical procedures for sterilization and pregnancy termination.

Dr. Hager's views on reproductive health care make him uniquely qualified for this job. He is a practicing OB/GYN who describes himself as "pro-life" and refuses to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women. He is the author of "As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now." The book combines Biblical accounts of how Christ healed women with case studies from Hager's own practice.

Not to overlook the naming former Patricia S. Harrison, now president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Ms. Harrison was the handpick of former Karl Rove pal Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who sparked controversy by asserting that programs carried by public broadcasters have a liberal bias. Tomlinson resigned under pressure from the CPB board a day after the agency's inspector general delivered a report critical of his use of public funds.

Ms. Harrison’s qualifications? She is a veteran public relations executive who served as co-chair of the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2001 and served as assistant secretary of state before her CPB appointment.

Also worth honorable mention is Daniel Troy, a former clerk for Judge Robert Bork. Troy was appointed as the Food and Drug Administration’s chief counsel in 2003, after a decade working as a Washington lawyer to restrict the FDA’s regulatory powers.

He won his share of legal battles, taking the side of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries against the federal agency. A smidgeon of conflict of interest, you say?

Troy held over 129 meetings with drug industry lobbyists during his three years in office – his predecessor held one -- and has helped drug companies defeat lawsuits. In four separate cases since 2002, the government has asked judges to dismiss potentially costly claims against drug makers.

Then there’s Paul J. Bonicelli, Ph.D., appointed to be Deputy Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, with responsibility for overseeing the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. As manager of the Agency's democracy and governance programs, Bonicelli's office focuses on strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights; promoting competitive elections and political processes; increasing development of a politically active civil society; and implementing transparent and accountable governance.

His qualifications? Before joining USAID, Bonicelli served as Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. That institution is one of half a dozen evangelical leadership programs making steady inroads into Washington. It was founded five years ago with the goal of turning out "Christian men and women who will lead our nation with timeless biblical values." Nearly every graduate works in government or with a conservative advocacy group, and many of its future graduates have served as interns in the office of Karl Rove.

Bonicelli told The New Yorker magazine last year that he believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible – news that his Muslim audience no doubt finds consoling.

Finally, there’s the return of the Contras. There are now several in the Bush Administration who were implicated in the scandal, the most prominent of whom is Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan. Abrams was appointed to the White House office for democracy, human rights, and international operations. Abrams's appointment did not need Senate approval. Just plain lucky!

He would probably have been rejected, arguably even by a Republican-controlled Congress. In 1991, Abrams, who once described himself as a "gladiator" for President Reagan's policies in Central America, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for illegally withholding information from the investigation into the Iran-contra affair, in which arms were sold to Iran and the proceeds illegally funneled to Contra forces waging war against the leftwing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. He was sentenced to two years' probation and 100 hours of community service, but was pardoned by George Bush senior in 1991. Abrams, whose appointment came on the eve of the Nicaraguan presidential election, was a founding member of the Project for a New American Century, the policy think-tank for the neoconservative movement.

What puzzles many Washington-watchers is exactly why we should expect sound policy and competence in policy implementation from people who are either clearly unqualified or who are driven by ideology rather than inconvenient facts.

As for any new spirit of bipartisanship coming from the White House, forget it. The Decider will keep on deciding – he’ll just try to steer clear of the Senate confirmation process.