Blog post

Biden’s White House makes a telling mistake

President Joe Biden’s White House usually gets the wheels of the presidency. This week, an example of a really bad mistake made headlines, and it’s worth considering the lessons it contains. The story: White House science adviser Eric Lander, who had cabinet status, resigned after Politico reported on an internal investigation that found he had bullied and abused staffers. A lot of things have gone wrong. Lander shouldn’t have been named to begin with; it drew bipartisan criticism even before it was confirmed. Biden himself didn’t help when he publicly pledged to fire any staff member who treated a colleague disrespectfully “on the spot — no ifs, ands or buts.” A great sentiment, but it set an unrealistic standard that the administration could not, and should not, have lived with. Of course, they would like to have a process to investigate any allegations of misconduct, but any reasonable system would fall short of Biden’s boast. As it happens, the White House apparently investigated Lander’s actions and then took no action until Politico broke the news. At least things moved quickly once the story went public, although even then Lander was allowed to resign rather than be fired. Overall, the episode wasn’t the administration’s brightest moment. The lesson, however, is the opposite of what you might think. This is evidence for rather than against the idea that the government controls administrative positions too much. Yes, a wrong choice does damage. In this case? Presumably Lander wasn’t very good at his job while he had it, which comes at a cost, as does the need to fill another position so quickly. But intrusive control also has real costs. Many people are simply unwilling to bother to release all the information needed for Senate confirmation. Especially people with complicated finances or a checkered life history. Yes, for some very sensitive posts, a thorough check is probably a good idea. But most of the hundreds of administrative positions that require confirmation (and the even more that don’t) aren’t really sensitive. Such intense screening reduces the pool of candidates and increases the resources needed to fill each position, including the schedule. time, which is a fixed and limited resource for any presidency. Yes, reduced background checks would mean more errors. More candidates would have problems during their confirmation hearings. Others would have an embarrassing past episode revealed after taking office and perhaps should resign. More could misbehave in various ways. These are real costs. But as Lander’s situation shows, the costs in most cases just wouldn’t be that high. And a key cost – coping with the subsequent vacancy after a failed appointment or a fired official – would be much lower if appointing people was easier. The truth is that presidents, their staffs, and senators (who are a big part of the problem, since they insist on extensive disclosure) are all excessively risk averse. It’s understandable; no one wants to be the one who didn’t disqualify the bully from office. But in doing so, they massively overestimate a set of risks and understate the harm caused by trying to avoid those risks. And by the way ? It doesn’t even work very well. As Lander painfully demonstrated. For weekend reading, here are some of the best articles from political scientists this week: Matt Grossmann interviews Christopher Claassen and Sara Wallace Goodman on public opinion and democracy. Nadia E. Brown, Christopher J. Clark and Anna Mitchell Mahoney at the Monkey Cage on women’s caucuses.Michael Tesler explains why Republicans are so unhappy with Biden’s promise to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court.Dave Karpf on Republicans .Elaine Kamarck on former President Donald Trump and the Republicans.Steven Taylor on former Vice President Mike Pence. And Matthew Shugart on the elections in Costa Rica.