In the era of big money, it is a familiar, if sobering, theme in modern presidential administrations, and this week President Obama’s administration took its turn.
A report published this week by iWatch news details the nearly 200 “bundlers” – individuals who channel multiple large donations to particular candidates – from President Obama’s 2008 campaign who have subsequently taken jobs or advisory roles in the administration.
True to form, White House spokesman Eric Shultz was quick to defend administration’s appointments, saying that all appointees “have sterling academic credentials, years of public services and private sector experience that make them eminently qualified for the positions to which they were appointed”.
This is probably true, in part because many of those qualities are what put people in the position to persuade wealthy friends and contacts to make donations in the first place. However, the appointment of bundlers today, as in past administrations, is worrisome for three reasons. Such appointments create at least the appearance that selections for executive positions may not be made on merit alone, undermining the public’s confidence in government, and they also narrow the pool of talent that the administration is likely to call upon in making their final decisions.
Regardless of the number of highly talented and qualified individuals Mr. Schultz can point out, public doubt inevitably lingers over such appointments. The American Foreign Service Association has long raised concerns over the appointment of campaign bundlers as ambassadors. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and career diplomat Thomas Pickering told iWatch that individuals could “multiply their chances” of gaining diplomatic appointments by bundling campaign contributions. Indeed, 24 ambassadors appointed by the administration were campaign bundlers, fourteen of whom raised at least $500,000 for the campaign.
It is likely that the prevalence of bundlers in certain positions within the administration narrows the field from which candidates are drawn. Half of those raising $200,000 or more for President Obama in 2008 were appointed to some role in the administration and fully 80 percent of those raising $500,000 or more were appointed. It is hard to imagine that when comparing candidates of similar qualification, the total money raised does not play a role, not least because the president will rely on many of these same people to raise money for his next campaign.
A narrower pool of talent means that those who supported former opponents are less likely to be appointed. Bi-partisan appointments, beyond a few high-profile exceptions, are even less likely. This is damaging at a time when finding common ground is vital to making major decisions about the challenges we face.
There is a solution to this problem; voluntary public funding of elections would allow candidates to raise money from a much broader base of public support. That would enable presidents to make appointments of talented and loyal supporters without doubts being raised as to whether such appointments were traded for financial support. It would also encourage the administration to cast its net more widely for the best available talent, perhaps even across the aisle. Such a change has to be good for our democracy.
Photo Credit: Enoch Lai