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Ronald Fraser: Drain patronage swamp

In keeping with his campaign promise to change the way Washinton does business, President-elect Barack Obama should immediately announce that, unlike Republicans and Democrats, he will not reward more than 3,000 campaign workers and other supporters with high-paying patronage jobs.

Doing away with presidential cronyism -- dishing out noncompetitive jobs with little regard for qualifications -- will show the Washington establishment that Obama means what he says and set the tone for the new administration.

Perhaps unkowingly, but through a stroke of good luck nonetheless, Obama recently named a well-known foe of patronage jobs,Paul Volcker, to chairman of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

As a collateral duty, Volcker should be tapped to help the new president drain Washington's patronage swamp.

In 2003, Volcker headed a National Commission on the Public Service study looking for ways to revitalize the federal government. One of study's key recommendations reads, "Congress and the president should work together to significantly reduce the number of executive branch political positions."

Patronage bashing is hardly new. A 1996 Brookings Institution study found that campaign workers are cheerleaders, not administrators, and "frequently fail to understand that governing ia a vastly different business from getting elected."

The report ends with a call to reduce the number of patronage jobs from 3,000 to 600, keeping only appointed heads and deputies at 75 federal agencies, plus 450 special assistants.

Putting qualified Obama loyalists in a few slots makes sense. For example, the 191 positions assigned to the Office of the President and a few top executives in each major department will help the new president manage the far-flung federal bureaucracy.

But how many appointees can an agency actually use?

Won't the 184-appointee slots at the Department of Agriculture and the 128 at the Department of Commerce -- many filled by persons not qualified to do the job -- get in each other's way?

Will the arrival of 187 new Defense Department appointees with little or no knowledge of the Middle East help or hinder Obama's plans for handling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

As for costs, presidential cronyism in past administrations is estimated to be more than $550 million a year.

The essential guide for patronage hunters, the 2008 "Plum Book", listing all of the 3,014 up-for-grabs appointee positions, has been released at the Government Printing Office (www.gpoaccess.gov/plumbook/2008/imdex.html).

It may be too late to stop the presses, but Mr.Obama can pass the word that his administration is looking for a few good men and women and will not be handing out many plums this time around.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at fraserr@erols.com.

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