Warren Bell is a funny guy. He has worked on television sitcoms like "Coach" and "According to Jim," starring Jim Belushi. Nevertheless, Warren Bell is a funny guy.
He wrote what he thought were entertaining but decidedly politically incorrect musings on the website of the conservative journal National Review. In one, he made a crack about Nancy Pelosi leaving a stain on his shirt, for which he has since apologized.
In another entry, he declared, "I am thoroughly conservative in ways that strike horror into the hearts of my Hollywood colleagues... I support a woman's right to choose what movie we should see, but not that other one. I am on the Right in every way." Other submissions have a similar, poke-in-the-eye-with-a-blunt-stick attitude.
Whether this qualifies Warren Bell for membership on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is debatable at best. No matter. He has TV experience, gave a few thousand bucks to Republican candidates, including George W. Bush, and the president saw fit to appoint him to the board, even though Bell confessed he wasn't conversant with public broadcasting's programming, favoring sports radio over NPR.
National Public Radio's understandably peevish response: "As far as we can tell," spokeswoman Andi Sporkin said, "Mr. Bell only brings a history of questionable comments about women, minorities and the media, and no discernible relevant achievement, involvement or commitment to public broadcasting."
Yet despite concerns that he'll be another right-winger, along the lines of Ken Tomlinson, the CPB chair who resigned last year after revelations of partisan abuse of his position, Bell says he'll do an okay job. He told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm not an ideologue and I'm certainly not Ken Tomlinson. I'm not on a crusade, except to make PBS a really great network for people to watch." Okay, Warren. We'll be watching you, too.
But that's not the point. Last summer, noting his lack of qualifications, the Senate Commerce Committee opted not to consider Bell's nomination. So Bush waited until over the holidays, when Congress was out of session, and named Bell to the board anyway -- a recess appointment that will be in place until the current session of Congress ends. California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said, "The American people made clear on November 7 they wanted bipartisanship from their government, and President Bush once again chose to ignore the concerns of the Senate instead of choosing a consensus nominee."
Presidents have been making recess appointments since George Washington. The power's right there in the Constitution -- Article II, Section 2 -- "The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session."
Our current president takes advantage of this perk a lot. Most of his recess appointments have been for political and ideological advantage, not -- as was the Constitution's intent -- to fill positions essential to the efficient running of government when there were long gaps between sessions of Congress. Such was the case in pre-airplane and air conditioning days, when travel was slow and the malarial heat of DC shut down the capital for months. Today, President Bush uses it to circumvent the balance of power, preventing the Senate from exercising its right of advice and consent, pushing and shoving his choices into office.
John Bolton's tenure as ambassador to the United Nations is the most notorious example, but how about Richard Stickler, a former coal company executive who's head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration? The Senate held up his appointment because, from 1989 to 1996, the injury rates at mines under his corporate management were double the national average.
In October, the president granted Stickler a recess appointment. According to the AFL-CIO, "Last year was the deadliest year for US coal miners since 1996, with 47 deaths -- a 210 percent increase from 2005." That includes the 12 killed at the Sago Mine in West Virginia a year ago. Stickler promises stricter enforcement and more mine inspectors. We're watching you as well, sir.
Then there's Wayne Beyer, a Republican lawyer appointed to the Federal Labor Relations Authority. The FLRA mediates management-labor disputes involving the one million union members employed by the Federal government (not including Postal Service employees). There are supposed to be three members of the FLRA; two Republicans, one Democrat.
The Democratic slot is vacant but Bush refuses to name a replacement. Meanwhile, on the same day as the Warren Bell CPB announcement, the president recess appointed Wayne Beyer to the FLRA. So now there are two Republicans running the agency with no Democrat to challenge their decision-making. It's all legal.
There are others. Among them, Julie Myers, head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (successor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service), whose lack of qualifications remains controversial -- she was assistant secretary for exports at the Commerce Department, where she oversaw a staff of 170. Now she's in charge of more than 15,000.
And Ellen Sauerbrey, former US representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, whose right-to-life positions made her a divisive recess appointment for the post of assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.
The next Senate recess comes February 19, when there's a weeklong break for the President's Day holiday. Many anticipate the possibility of at least two more controversial recess appointments.
The president may appoint Richard Hoagland ambassador to Armenia. The nomination has been held up in the Senate by New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez because of the administration's and Hoagland's reluctance to classify the World War I-era killing of as many as one million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide, a classification the current Turkish government officially rejects.
President Bush may also name Susan Dudley head of the regulatory office of the White House Office of Management and Budget, a position described by Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch as "one of the most obscure yet powerful jobs in Washington."
In the on-line, public interest journal TomPaine.com, O'Donnell wrote, "The person in this position can, largely without public scrutiny, interfere with actions of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, and become a conduit for industries seeking to avoid federal health, environmental and safety standards.
"These industries couldn't have picked a better champion than Dudley, a true anti-regulatory zealot. As director of regulatory studies at the industry-funded Mercatus Center, Dudley was like a wrecking ball out to smash key safeguards. She opposed, for example, EPA attempts to reduce smog, clean up gasoline and keep arsenic out of drinking water...
"Putting Dudley in this key federal post would be like naming comedian Michael Richards to head the US Civil Rights Commission."
In other words, because of actions like Bush administration recess appointments, the clowns are running the circus.
Over the last year, three great women of Texas have died: former Governor Ann Richards, columnist Molly Ivins and my mom.
Molly died last week and there's nothing I can add to the justly merited encomiums of praise. The final, brief conversation I had with her was in the weeks just before my mother, Amanda Frances Forrester Winship, passed. Knowing my mother hailed from the town of Belton, Molly said, by way of benediction, I think, "Your mom -- she's REAL Texas."
Molly Ivins was real Texas, too, and real just about everything else; genuine in her liberal convictions, wickedly funny, vivid, an inspiration to everyone who ascribes to Mr. Dooley's famous description of journalism's purpose as afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. All of us must act, Molly said, because, "Politics is not a picture on a wall or a television sitcom that you can decide you don't much care for."
She was very much a role model for this column and if I ever get even remotely proximate to her wisdom, generosity, patriotism, wit and class I will die a happy man. God bless Molly Ivins. Raise more hell.
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.