Editorial: The harm of patronage

Apr. 23, 2013 @ 11:33 PM

It should come as no surprise to anyone that at the federal level, people are appointed to positions based in large part on who they know and how much money they contributed to a candidate. We see that at the state and local levels as well.

A Vanderbilt University professor says that although the patronage system of political appointees shows no signs of weakening, anything that can be done to corral it would help the federal government operate more efficiently. That should go without saying, but sometimes it takes a little research to prove the point.

“Current presidents have between 3,000 and 4,000 positions at their disposal to fill throughout the federal government, which suggests that citizens should be concerned about how patronage appointments affect government performance,” said David Lewis, professor of Political Science and co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. “If the victors get the spoils, what do the citizens get?”

Using the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), a measuring system devised during the George W. Bush administration by the Office of Management and Budget, Lewis and Vanderbilt alumnus and former Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions affiliate Nick Gallo found that citizens get “lower quality management of federal government programs because of patronage.”

Career managers perform better than appointees, and those appointees from the campaign perform the worst,” Lewis said. On the positive side, presidents try to avoid placing patronage appointments in positions where a lot of damage can be done, such as managing key federal programs, Lewis and Gallo note.

“Presidents try to place patronage appointees in positions where they are qualified to perform their jobs, or at the very least, where they can cause relatively little harm,” Lewis said.

When you don’t appoint the best people to positions, you risk getting the kind of problems generated by ineffective and irresponsible people. Think Mike Brown, head of FEMA under President George W. Bush, who famously mishandled the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina.

To the victor belong the spoils, but that doesn’t mean you have to reward incompetency.