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RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Better oversight, better Bush

March 21, 2007|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

AT TIMES, President Bush's second term has resembled a laboratory test of what happens to a large institution when all mechanisms of accountability are disabled.

The results have not been pretty.

Hurricane Katrina, the chaotic occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, the breakdown at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the FBI's abuse of Patriot Act powers, the troubling dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys -- everywhere, the administration has been plagued by an epidemic of incompetence.

Bush has stumbled so badly at managing the basic responsibilities of government that even the National Review, the flagship magazine of the conservative movement and hardly a traditional critic of the president, used its latest cover to plaintively ask: "Can't anyone here play this game?"

How did it come to this for an administration that, as the National Review noted, initially portrayed itself as buttoned-down "adults" returning to Washington after President Clinton's baby boom bacchanal?

The answer begins with Bush's management style. He combines a distaste for details with a tendency to prize loyalty over performance.

Shaped by those attitudes, Bush typically worries more about signaling resolve to his critics by denying failures inside his government than demanding excellence by punishing it. That impulse explains how Bush could present a prestigious medal to George J. Tenet -- who had resigned months earlier as CIA chief -- after his agency's declarations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction crumbled like sand, and how Donald H. Rumsfeld survived so long as Defense secretary while Iraq disintegrated.

Bush's instincts were dangerously reinforced by the Republican-controlled Congress, which viewed itself less as an independent branch of government than as a junior partner to the White House in the American equivalent of a parliamentary system.

The Republican majority so completely abdicated its responsibilities to conduct oversight on the executive branch that its governing motto might have been "don't ask, don't tell."

Key House and Senate committees sometimes went months without oversight hearings on Iraq. Neither chamber managed more than a glancing review of the increased police powers the administration acquired for the war on terror. Congress barely noted the collapse in care for many veterans at Walter Reed, and it almost completely avoided issues uncomfortable for Bush, such as global warming and declining access to health insurance.

This deference reflected the widespread tendency among congressional Republicans "to think that your political welfare is tied up with the president, and you don't want to make him look bad," as Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), one of the few GOP leaders who maintained some independence from the White House, told The Times.

But the abandonment of oversight had the opposite effect. By refusing to challenge the administration's performance, the Republican majority allowed problems to fester and dysfunction to deepen. One senior House Republican said this week that nothing hurt the GOP more in 2006 than the collapse of its reputation for competent governance.

Many of the decisions now causing Bush grief could have been made only by a politician who did not believe anyone was looking over his shoulder. It's inconceivable that the administration would have been so cavalier about planning the postwar occupation of Iraq -- or so dismissive of the Army warnings that it had not deployed enough troops to ensure order -- if it knew that Congress would closely examine its plans.

Likewise, it's difficult to imagine that an administration accustomed to serious scrutiny would have dismissed U.S. attorneys involved in sensitive decisions on whether to prosecute political corruption and fraud cases the way Bush's Justice Department did in December.

Depending on how they apply oversight power, the Democratic congressional majority could restore badly needed accountability to the system.

If Democrats focus on settling scores, they will succeed only in igniting partisan firefights. They veered dangerously close to that mistake Friday with the hearing flogging the Valerie Plame case, which the criminal justice system had already adjudicated. But congressional oversight aimed at legitimate targets will serve the country by increasing pressure on the administration to demonstrate results -- beginning in Iraq, but also at home. Already, tough congressional questioning is forcing Bush to change the way he operates.

In the four months since Democrats won control, perhaps more administration officials linked to failure or ethical missteps -- Rumsfeld, officials directly responsible for Walter Reed, the Army secretary, the Justice Department chief of staff -- have resigned under fire than during the six years when the GOP majority averted its eyes. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, even after Bush's vote of confidence Tuesday, may be the next to fall to the new breeze.

Tuesday's stormy news conference suggests that Bush will push back against tough oversight. But his presidency might have turned out a lot better if he hadn't spent his first six years virtually immune from it.

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