Report: White House coordinated taxpayer-funded travel on behalf of embattled GOP candidates
Nick Juliano
Published: Wednesday October 15, 2008

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A new report from the House Oversight Committee alleges that President Bush and his White House political team engaged in a systematic effort to send government officials on taxpayer-funded trips to help Republican candidates in the 2006 midterm elections.

The 27-page report (.pdf) documents 425 trips arranged by the White House Office of Political Affairs for various agency heads, cabinet secretaries and other prominent administration officials. More than 300 of those trips took the officials outside of Washington for events with members of Congress in tough races. Most of the pseudo-campaign stops were paid for with taxpayer money, in violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits political activity as a part of the official duties of executive branch personnel, according to the report.

The committee's reports recommends amending the law governing executive branch political activity and eliminating the White House Office of Political Affairs.

Ken Mehlman, who ran Bush's re-election campaign in 2004, led the Political Affairs office in the president's first term. The Oversight Committee report said he laid the groundwork for the politicization of agency heads.

Under Mr. Mehlman, the Office of Political Affairs established what it called an “asset deployment” team to mobilize agency heads to travel to events with Republican candidates. The asset deployment team included various members of the Office of Political Affairs, as well as the chiefs of staff and White House liaisons of at least 12 departments and agencies. It was established in 2002.
The team deployed agency heads to appear with Republican incumbents who were facing difficult re-election races. It also apparently timed the visits to ramp up in the months before the election. In October of 2006, executive branch officials completed more than 90 visits recommended by the political office.

The report says cooperative agencies were praised while White House officials cajoled agencies who did not advance the president's political agenda.

In one instance, the report notes, that GOP political guru Karl Rove singled out the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Departments of Commerce, Transportation and Agriculture for their cooperation with the party's election efforts. An ONDCP White House liason singled out the praise in an e-mail to the office's director and other top officials.
This recognition is not something we hear everyday and we should feel confident that our hard work is noticed. All of this is due to our efforts in preparing the Director and Deputies for their trips and events. Director Walters and the Deputies covered thousands of miles to attend numerous official events all across the country. The Director and the Deputies deserve the most recognition because they actually had to give up time with their families for the god awful places we sent them.
The report notes that activities of the White House political office have been controversial since former President Ronald Reagan established in in 1981 and it recounts complaints of Bill Clinton's improper use of agency officials in pursuit of political goals.
But the extent of political activity by the current White House and its deep and systematic reach into the federal agencies is unprecedented. Congress should amend the Hatch Act, the federal law restricting political activity by federal officials, to eliminate the White House Office of Political Affairs. If the political affairs office is retained, its activities should be restructured to ensure that it serves the interests of the taxpayer, not the political party of the President.
The Hatch Act, originally passed in 1939 to quell fears that Franklin Roosevelt would use an expanding corps of federal employees to advance his political prospects, has been amended several times since its passage. The actions documented in the report seem to represent precisely the kind of conduct it aimed to prevent.

"In effect," the report says, "the Bush Administration established precisely the type of 'political boiler-room' that Congress warned against when it amended the Hatch Act in 1993."