Find the Brownie

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

September 27, 2005

For the politically curious seeking entertainment, I'd like to propose two new trivia games: "Find the Brownie" and "Two Degrees of Jack Abramoff."

The objective in Find the Brownie is to find an obscure but important government job held by someone whose only apparent qualifications for that job are political loyalty and personal connections. It's inspired by President Bush's praise, four days after Katrina hit, for the hapless Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." I guess it depends on the meaning of the word heck.

There are a lot of Brownies. As Time magazine puts it in its latest issue, "Bush has gone further than most presidents to put political stalwarts in some of the most important government jobs you've never heard of." Time offers a couple of fresh examples, such as the former editor of a Wall Street medical-industry newsletter who now holds a crucial position at the Food and Drug Administration.

A tipster urged me to look for Brownies among regional administrators for the General Services Administration, which oversees federal property and leases. There are several potential ways a position at G.S.A. could be abused. For example, an official might give a particular businessman an inside track in the purchase of government property - the charge against David Safavian, who was recently arrested - or give a particular landlord an inside track in renting space to federal agencies.

Some of the regional administrators at G.S.A. are longtime professionals. But the regional administrator for the Northeast and Caribbean region, which includes New York, has no obvious qualifications other than being the daughter of the chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State. The regional administrator for the Southwest, appointed in 2002 after a failed bid for his father's Congressional seat, is Scott Armey, the son of Dick Armey, the former House majority leader.

You get the idea. Go ahead, see what - or rather who - you can come up with.

Jack Abramoff is a lobbyist who was paid huge sums by clients such as casino-owning Indian tribes and sweatshop operators on Saipan. Two Degrees of Jack Abramoff is inspired by the remarkable centrality of Mr. Abramoff, who was indicted last month on charges of fraud, in Washington's power structure.

The goal isn't to find important political players who were chummy with Mr. Abramoff - that's too easy. Instead, you have to find people linked by employment. One degree of Jack Abramoff is someone who actually worked for the lobbyist. Two degrees is a powerful Washington figure who hired someone who formerly worked for Mr. Abramoff, or who had one of his own former employees go to work for Mr. Abramoff.

Grover Norquist, the powerful antitax lobbyist, is a one-degree man. Mr. Norquist was Mr. Abramoff's campaign manager when he ran for chairman of the College Republican National Committee, then became his executive director. And don't dismiss this as kid stuff: as Franklin Foer explains in The New Republic, the college Republican organization pays serious salaries and has been a steppingstone for the likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.

Mr. Rove, by the way, is a two-degree man. He hired Susan Ralston, Mr. Abramoff's personal assistant, as his own personal assistant. For those unfamiliar with what that means, Ms. Ralston became Mr. Rove's gatekeeper - the person who determined who got to see the great man.

Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, is also a two-degree man. Tony Rudy, who worked for Mr. DeLay in several capacities, left to work for Mr. Abramoff.

Finally, somebody should be considered a two-degree man on account of the recently arrested Mr. Safavian, who worked for both Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Norquist, then went first to the G.S.A. and on to the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he oversaw procurement policy. But I'm not sure who gets credit for hiring Mr. Safavian.

O.K., enough joking. The point of my games - which are actually research programs for enterprising journalists - is that all the scandals now surfacing are linked. Something is rotten in the state of the U.S. government. And the lesson of Hurricane Katrina is that a culture of cronyism and corruption can have lethal consequences.