Friday, June 6, 2008

NASA, Political Appointees, and Obama

On Tuesday, the inspector general of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) issued a report confirming that political appointees had skewed agency scientific reports on global warming.
“Our investigation,” the report said, “found that during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public.”

The report said most evidence supported contentions that politics was “inextricably interwoven” into operations at the public affairs office in that period and that the pattern was inconsistent with the statutory responsibility to communicate findings widely, “especially on a topic that has worldwide scientific interest.”
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs at the agency when the problems surfaced, Dean Acosta denied the charges in the report. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, who wrote the request for the inquiry, had a different view.
“Global warming is the most serious environmental threat we face, but this report is more evidence that the Bush administration’s appointees have put political ideology ahead of science,” Mr. Lautenberg said in an e-mailed statement. “Our government’s response to global warming must be based on science, and the Bush administration’s manipulation of that information violates the public trust.”
editorial in Thursday’s NYT points to the larger cost of that betrayal of trust.
This administration long ago secured a special place in history for bending science to its political ends. One costly result is that this nation has lost seven years in a struggle in which time is not on anyone’s side.
There are at least two major issues in this story. The first is the need to restore scientific integrity to federal agencies. The
Union of Concerned Scientists echoed the concerns of twenty-two Nobel laureates about this administration’s abuse of science.
The United States has an impressive history of investing in scientific research and respecting the independence of scientists. As a result, we have enjoyed sustained economic progress and public health, as well as unequaled leadership within the global scientific community. Recent actions by political appointees, however, threaten to undermine this legacy by preventing the best available science from informing policy decisions that have serious consequences for our health, safety, and environment.

Across a broad range of issues—from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons—political appointees have distorted and censored scientific findings that contradict established policies. In some cases, they have manipulated the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions.
The second is the need to restore integrity generally to federal agencies. After re-election in 2004, President Bush
set about to control federal agencies in a way that had not been attempted since President Nixon after his re-election in 1972. According to James Pfiffner, a specialist in presidential personnel at George Mason University, despite Nixon’s efforts to place people loyal to him at sub-cabinet levels, he still “didn't get the kind of inside, deep-down control that they wanted." Bush, on the other hand, has been “unusually successful at enforcing control over the Cabinet agencies.”

Now, humor me and play this game we’ll call “Remember the Scandal.” Read down this list of the fifteen
federal Cabinet Departments, letting each department name remind you of stories of how these agencies have been discredited by this administration:
- Agriculture
- Commerce
- Defense
- Education
- Energy
- Health and Human Services
- Homeland Security
- Housing and Urban Development
- Justice
- Labor
- State
- Interior
- Treasury
- Transportation
- Veteran’s Affairs

If that doesn’t bring up enough scandal in your head, click on the link to each department and view the lists of agencies in the departments (FCC, FDA, NIH, etc.) or, as I also did, go on down to click on the sixty-five Independent Agencies and Government Corporations (of which NASA is one). Read them and weep.

This is really not a game. It is a reminder that restoring integrity to these agencies will be a gargantuan task. Over 3,000 political appointees are spread through the top 10 to 15 layers of management. The 1.8 million civil service workers, many of whom are nearly impossible to fire, have been the butts of jokes for decades. Take care at how you laugh at the jokes because their presence in these last seven years may have been all that prevented the complete politization of the agencies.

On Thursday presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama
announced that the Democratic Party will no longer accept gifts from lobbyists and PACs. I hope he is equally determined to restore integrity to the executive agencies by appointing qualified personnel as political appointees, and not political hacks. Rooting out the culture of cronyism and politicization will require more than replacing Bush appointees, but it is the place to start. From what I’ve seen of Obama, I suspect that he knows how important and how difficult this task will be. I hope so. What Obama is able to achieve as president and the future of our form of government may depend on how well he accomplishes this task.

- Milo

PS: If he is elected, what will Obama look back on four years from now as his most difficult task?
- Winning the nomination over Hillary Clinton
- Winning the election against McCain
- Getting the U.S. out of Iraq
- Preventing the recession from becoming a depression
- Establishing a national health care plan
- Insuring the solvency of Social Security
- Restoring credibility to federal agencies
- Something else altogether

I am interested in know what you think. You can put your answer in a comment, or you can go to my poll at the end of this article on Daily Kos, record your answer, and see what others think.


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