Do Well in Hard Times: Become a Bush Political Appointee
Published on Saturday, January 18, 2003 by the Boulder Daily Camera
Do Well in Hard Times: Become a Bush Political Appointee
by Christopher Brauchli
 

When a great many people are unable to find work, unemployment results.
— Attributed to Calvin Coolidge

On Jan. 11, 2003, it was reported that payrolls were shrinking by tens of thousands of people all over the United States. That was offset, however, by the prospect of eliminating the tax on dividends, which will benefit, among others, those who have no jobs but sizable stock portfolios. In addition, there are still high-paying jobs to be had. The only requirements pertain to party affiliation and since there are only two parties to choose from, readers have a 50-percent chance of already belonging to the right party and thus qualifying for a really high-paying job.

The first kind of job that pays well is the job available to political appointees. In early December it was reported that the White House had decided that several thousand political appointees in the federal government would be eligible for cash bonuses in addition to their salaries. Payment of those bonuses had been abolished during the Clinton administration because of questionable practices associated with their payment during the reign of George I. At the end of his administration, for example, Attorney General William Barr approved more than $100,000 in bonuses for political appointees, including two $7,500 bonuses to his closest political aides, who then left government and joined his law firm. In 1994 Mr. Clinton's chief of staff, Leon Panetta, put a halt to the practice, saying: "If you start giving cash awards to political appointees, it can be abused by handing out cash because someone's doing a good job politically or just knows the right people." That policy remained in place until 2002 when chief of staff, Andrew Card, said bonuses should be available for political appointees. Cabinet-level officials and agency chiefs are now authorized to approve annual awards of up to $10,000 for senior attorneys, policy advisers, confidential assistants and other appointees. Awards can go up to $25,000 or even more, with White House approval.

Career civil servants are reportedly unhappy with the new policy since it means that those who, in more candid times, might be described as "political hacks," are competing with them for a limited pool of money which will not be increased in size to accommodate the additional swimmers.

Restoring the policy of bonuses for political appointees at a time when hundreds of thousands of others are losing their jobs or working for reduced wages is the kind of public-relations triumph at which Mr. Bush and his staff excel. The bonuses paid to political appointees, however, don't hold a candle to salaries to be paid members of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board that was created by Congress in 2002.

At the height of the accounting scandals in 2002, Congress established the board to oversee the accounting profession. Until 2002, it was believed that one of the functions of an accountant was to oversee the activities of large corporations. During the collapse of, among others, Enron, it was learned that if that was the role of an accounting firm, in many cases it was a role it had played badly and for which it received appropriately bad reviews. As a result Congress decreed that a board should be created to oversee the accountants who were overseeing corporations. The theory was that if there are enough people overseeing people who are overseeing other people, eventually someone will get it right, a novel if not necessarily correct assumption.

On Jan. 9, six months after it had been created, the board held its first meeting. It had neither a permanent chairman, a senior staff nor a final budget. Its first chairman, William Webster, resigned shortly after being appointed when it was disclosed that he had chaired the audit committee of a company with accounting problems of the sort the oversight board was supposed to address.

At the board's first meeting its members were introduced by Harvey Pitt, the former chairman of the SEC who resigned before the elections but continues to serve since he hasn't found anything better to do and no one has been hired to replace him. The board had a fruitful meeting even though it lacked staff and a chair (of the sort that runs meetings).

It deferred action on a suggestion that the auditors in charge of auditing the board which is to audit the auditors who audit corporations, be replaced every five years in order to ensure their independence.

It did not defer action on compensation for its members. It considered its work, compared it with what the president of the United States does, and concluded its members should be paid $452,000, $52,000 more than he receives. It also decided that the chair, when hired, would be paid $556,000. The law creating the board says it should pay employees at a level comparable to what they would earn at private-sector regulatory bodies. As one board member said: "We want to attract the appropriate talent. We believe that in order to get the right people that we're going to have to pay to get them, and we're willing to do that." It intends to pay some employees as much as $425,000 annually. It causes one to wonder if we'd have better presidents if we paid applicants a bit more.

In other action the board ratified a lease for its headquarters. It found ideal space on K Street in Washington, D.C., in offices that had formerly been occupied by an Arthur Andersen office prior to that firm's collapse. The symbolism of that move was apparently lost on the members of the board.

Given the hard economic times the rest of the country is facing, it is good to know that there are still folks getting jobs with good salaries. Readers should not hesitate to apply.

Christopher Brauchli is a Boulder lawyer and and writes a weekly column for the Knight Ridder news service. He can be reached at brauchli1@attbi.com

Copyright 2003, The Daily Camera

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