Competent government at the federal level is not a partisan issue. Nor is it a small one.
About 4,000 positions are political appointments that must be reviewed by an incoming administration, and more than 1,000 of those require Senate confirmation.
Cabinet appointments receive much attention from the media and the public, and often lead to contentious confirmation hearings. So do federal judges when positions come open.
But most federal appointees are buried deep within the machinery of government, where they play a role in a smooth-running administration. When an employer has a question about, say, required meal breaks for workers, they probably won’t directly contact the U.S. Secretary of Labor; they will contact a career bureaucrat who is overseen by a lower-level appointee.
The scope of federal appointments is so broad that the government publishes a book listing all the positions. As NPR writes in an interesting article that reveals the mind-numbing complexity of the federal bureaucracy: “It’s better known as the Plum Book because of its purple cover — and also probably because it’s filled with plum jobs.”
While most appointees go unnoticed, the selection of an assistant secretary of the Employment and Training Administration, within the U.S. Department of Labor, has drawn attention in Washington state. The Biden administration has picked Suzi LeVine, who most recently headed Washington’s Employment Security Department.
LeVine had a tumultuous tenure in state government. The department was overwhelmed by unemployment claims as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the economy, with thousands of Washingtonians unable to receive much-needed payments. At the same time, the department paid out about $600 million in fraudulent claims that originated overseas.
Given that history, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, joined Washington’s two other Republican congressional members in challenging the appointment. LeVine’s “gross mismanagement of state taxpayer dollars is extremely concerning considering this new position puts her in charge of over $9 billion of taxpayer funds,” they wrote in a letter to the administration.
The representatives added: “With thousands of our constituents affected by the ineffectiveness of Ms. LeVine’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are deeply concerned that her appointment will have a negative impact on the millions of people who rely on the services of the Employment and Training Administration.”
The concerns are valid, and they rekindle questions about how LeVine ended up heading a state agency in the first place. She had experience with Microsoft and Expedia, but her primary qualification seemed to be as an effective fundraiser for the Democratic Party. She headed the department since being selected by Gov. Jay Inslee in July 2018.
Federal appointments often are patronage positions, with candidates being rewarded for supporting a candidate. Don Benton, a former state senator from Southwest Washington, headed the U.S. Selective Service System through most of the Trump administration, despite having no qualifications other than being an early supporter of Trump’s candidacy.
The Employment and Training Administration, which has about 1,000 employees, is more consequential. It should have leaders with a proven record of effective management, not a stormy reign as the head of a state agency.