`Political boiler room’ in the White House

    What if Michael Nutter created a Mayor’s Office of Political Affairs so a couple of senior aides could do political work on city time?

    He’d be pilloried, that’s what.

    But it turns out there’s a White House Office of Political Affairs, and a scathing report just issued by the U.S. Office of General Counsel says that in the 2006 mid-term elections, the Bush administration violated federal law by using government employees, offices, and taxpayer-funded travel to help GOP candidates.

    “Specifically, OSC’s investigation revealed that the Office of Political Affairs was essentially an extension of the Republican National Committee in the White House,” the report found.

    Two Pennsylvania candidates were among those that got the illegal help, the report found – then U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, and Bucks County U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, who lost his seat that year and won it back in November.

    The report found that White House personnel worked with the RNC to develop a “target list” of close Republican races, planned travel by high-level government officials to support Republican campaigns, tracked fundraising efforts for GOP candidates and gave political briefings on duty.

    What’s really interesting to me about the report is that it confronts the contradictions involved in giving elected officials enormous public money and power, and trying to keep them from using it for their own political benefit.

    In Philadelphia, Deputy City Commissioner Rene Tartaglione was recently bounced out of her job for doing political work on her own time. And civil servants in the city’s executive branch are just now getting the right to plant a lawn sign at home and wear a political button to the grocery store.

    The White House Office of Political Affairs had its roots in the 1970’s, when President Jimmy Carter was criticized as politically inept. The report says Carter was the first president to appoint someone to be exclusively responsible for dealing with political matters.

    The political affairs office followed and became a presidential repository of political acumen and at least at times, partisan activity.

    The federal Hatch Act effectively bars public employees from doing politics on government time or with government resources. But there are exceptions, and according to the report, the Director and Deputy Director of the Office of Political Affairs were “permitted to engage in political activity on duty and in the federal workplace provided the costs associated with the activity were reimbursed to the Treasury.”

    Put those people in charge of a couple hundred civil servants, and it seems you’re asking for what happened in 2006, when the report concludes ‘the Office of Political Affairs rose to the level of a ‘political boiler room’ during the Bush II administration.”

    The Office of Special Counsel didn’t investigate the Office of Political Affairs in previous administrations, but for context it did note many stories in mainstream media and scholarly journals suggesting that OPA staff worked closely with both the Democratic and Republican National Committees.

    A Washington Times piece exposed a Clinton administration memo that involved cabinet members traveling to support vulnerable Democratic candidates.

    The report offers no judgment about whether past administrations activities violated the law.

    It concludes the expenses of public officials who traveled to support GOP candidates should have been reimbursed by the Republican party, and it says changes in the Hatch Act should be considered.

    A re-thinking of this is in order, and it seems to me some simple principles should apply:

    1. An elected official, mayor or president, gets to do politics, but the expenses are paid privately.

    2. Every other public employee refrains from partisan activity on government time, and doesn’t use government resources for it.

    3. The elected official will and should hire people with political experience and acumen in the government. They have to negotiate with other elected officials on policy matters, and political sensibilities are invaluable. What they don’t do is direct campaigns, raise money, become political operatives. It shouldn’t be hard to understand that White House employees shouldn’t be developing “target lists” of key races and dispatching cabinet officials on campaign trips.

    The New York Times reported last week that President Obama is closing the White House Office of Political Affairs “in preparation for the establishment of his re-election headquarters” in Chicago.

    I did get a call back from Congressman Fitzpatrick’s office on the visit of a federal official to assist his campaign. Spokesman Darren Smith noted that the report didn’t criticize Fitzpatrick and Smith said he was never contacted by investigators.

    The visiting official was Jack Claypoole of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who went to Bucks County in October 2006 to announce a $75,000 grant to fight youth drug use. Two contemporary news accounts don’t mention Fitzpatrick being at the event.

    “We heard nothing more about this event until seeing this report yesterday,” Smith said.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.