Ideology-based hiring; ideology-based reporting

The ideology-based hiring that occurred at the Justice Department in 2006 and quite possibly in 2002 is a genuine scandal. Given the absence of any need to “work” the story in order to cast the Bush administration Justice Department in a bad light, one might have hoped for a spin-free rendition from the Washington Post. Carrie Johnson, though, fails to deliver.

Life proceeds in chronological order, and the chronology of this story is straightforward — statistical evidence of bias in hiring in 2002; no evidence from which bias can been inferred in 2003, 2004, and 2005; direct evidence of bias in 2006. Johnson fails to lay this out, although the careful, thorough reader can more or less pick it up from the story. At worst, Johnson is guilty of sloppy writing here.

But consider this sentence: “Traditionally, the highly coveted intern and honors jobs had been awarded based on merit.” How does Johnson know this? The answer is, she doesn’t; she simply assumes that modern wrongdoing began with the Bush administration.

In fact, it’s far from clear that these jobs were filled during the Clinton years without regard to ideology. Orin Kerr, who went through the hiring process in that era, writes:

Although I’m not aware of anything like this happening during the Clinton years, I doubt politics was entirely irrelevant to hiring at the time. When I applied to the Honors Program in the fall of 1997 (and was accepted), it was generally understood among conservative/libertarian applicants that being conservative/libertarian was a negative on a DOJ Honors Program application. It wasn’t necessarily an automatic ding, except of course at the Civil Rights Division. But it was a negative in an intensely competitive process. As a result, it was common not to list extracurricular activities that signaled conservative/libertarian viewpoints and that were the kind of thing that an applicant might or might not list on a resume depending on the job. I followed that practice in my case. I remember thinking at the time that I wouldn’t have gotten the job otherwise.

There’s also some indication that during the Bush administration, career employees may have been discriminating against conservatives in the process of recommending candidates for the jobs in question. It’s clear from the DOJ’s report that many more liberals and Democrats than conservatives and Republicans were, in fact, recommended. Since we don’t know the rates at which liberal/Democrats and conservative/Republicans applied (or, for that matter the comparative qualifications of the applicants), we can’t conclude from the numbers that the career bureaucrats actually were biased. But we can conclude that the Post has no basis for asserting that the process was unbiased “until top [Bush administration] Justice Department officials moved to give political appointees more control.”

The Post concludes its story with the following quote from Nicolas Jess, a Clinton department DOJ official: “The Honors Program at DOJ has always been the A-list; the next attorney general will be stuck with many from the B-list.” This statement is entirely lacking in basis. Every conservative and every Republican selected for the Honors program came from the A-list — the one prepared by the various bureaucracies within the Justice Department and the one which it may have been more difficult for conservatives and Republicans to make. The impropriety here consists of striking names from the A-list based on ideology and/or political affiliation (but only in two years at the most), not in reaching down to a B-list in order to select conservatives and Republicans.

That impropriety is bad enough, though apparently not for the Washington Post.

JOHN adds: The federal bureaucracy is overwhelmingly Democratic and overwhelmingly liberal. I think it is likely that for the last forty years, at least, conservatives have been widely discriminated against in hiring and promotion not only at DOJ but in most federal agencies. While I certainly agree that political considerations should be absent from such decisions, I can understand why conservatives at DOJ could have been tempted to undertake affirmative action to counteract, in part, the effects of longstanding discrimination.

SCOTT adds: David Frum points out parts of the report tending to support the proposition that there was, as Paul says, “some indication that during the Bush administration, career employees may have been discriminating against conservatives in the process of recommending candidates for the jobs in question.” Frum writes:

From page 16:
Christopher Wray, then Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, said that politics and ideology only arose in the context of the concern of trying to be more inclusive. He said there was a perception that in past administrations the career employees doing the screening may have weeded out candidates because the selecting officials were not “comfortable with their political persuasion.” He said the political persuasion he was referring to pertained to candidates who had been in the military or law enforcement, “whether you call that conservative or not.”

Is there evidence to support this “perception”? Why yes!

On pp. 20-21, we find the numbers that establish that the DoJ career staff in 2002 nominated twice as many identifiable liberals as identifiable conservatives for the Honors track program: 100 vs. 46.

And on page 27, we read that the DoJ bureaucracy advanced nearly three times as many identifiable liberals as conservatives for summer internships that year, 81 vs. 29.

If anything, the ideological bias of the DoJ bureaucracy seems to have become more entrenched with time. In 2006, it nominated five times as many liberals as conservatives for Honors track positions, 150 v. 28, and more three times as many liberals as conservatives for summer internships, 68 v. 16. (See p. 41 and p. 54.)

The evidence suggests that DoJ hiring was contaminated by ideology long before the Bush administration came to town. The Bush administration may have erred and over-corrected. But let’s not allow the permanent government and the Democrats (but I repeat myself) to get away with spreading the claim that things were done in a neutral fashion beforehand.

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