Ambassadorships Should Not Be Political Payoffs (The Hill)

Were you impressed over the winter when hotelier George Tsunis, nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Norway, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had never been to Norway and confused a moderate political party with a “fringe” party?

Were you proud to be an American when the responses by the nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, “The Bold and the Beautiful” producer Colleen Bell, were universally described as stammering and that the other nominees for Argentina and Iceland were labeled similarly unimpressive?

Even the nominee to head up the U.S. Embassy in one of the world’s most sensitive super powers, longtime Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), volunteered, “I’m no real expert on China.”

And were you further surprised to learn that Mr. Tsunis was a million-dollar bundler for President Obama, as were the other nominees -- fundraisers all set to get their reward for the ability to raise huge chunks of campaign cash.

In reaction to this embarrassing spectacle, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) announced that the Obama administration has now agreed to post online their proof of ambassadorial nominees’ competency.  Previously, as ABC News reported, the “Certificates of Demonstrated Competence” were available only to senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, which is charged with confirming the nominees.  After last month’s troubling hearings, the AFSA had filed Freedom of Information petitions at the Department of State for past certificates.

According to ABC’s report, there will now—supposedly— be “new, more stringent standards for ambassadorial nominees, including the need to have an ‘understanding of high-level policy and operations and of key U.S. interests and values in the country,’ ‘understanding of host country and international affairs’ and ‘relevant management experience.’”

While posting these certificates online is a step forward, the mess that is the current ambassadorial appointment process remains.  The new public “Certificate of Demonstrated Competence” is missing an important ingredient.   When forwarding for the Senate a nomination of an individual to be an ambassador, the president should also be required to make another public certification: for any nominee who contributed, bundled, or directed $50,000 or more to any political committee controlled, maintained or directed by the president or any party committee supporting the president, that such funds played no role in the decision to nominate the individual as an ambassador.

After all, 18 USC Section 211, originally enacted in 1940, states:

Whoever solicits or receives as a political contribution, or for personal emolument, any money or thing of value, in consideration of the promise of support or use of influence in obtaining for any person any appointive office or place under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imposed not more than one year, or both.

Whoever solicits or receives any thing of value in consideration of aiding a person to obtain employment under the United States either by referring his name to an executive department or agency of the United States or by requiring the payment of a fee because such person has secured such employed shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

For too long, violations of Section 211 have been happening with impunity.  For years, presidents have more or less followed an unstated “70-30 rule,” meaning that they have turned to political supporters for about a third of ambassadorships.  According to AFSA, former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford had a 38 percent rate for political ambassadors.  Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were at about 27 percent, and George W. Bush and his father were right around 30 percent.

President Obama’s rate for his first term was close to those of Reagan and Ford -- 37 percent. The rate for his second term is currently at 53 percent.

In the past, most questions about the propriety of appointing political supporters to ambassadorships could be countered by noting that having trusted allies in sensitive international positions can make for good diplomacy.  After all, having an U.S. Ambassador who is viewed as having the president’s ear can be a sign of prestige – think Caroline Kennedy in Japan -- or of savvy political operating -- Averill Harriman in England during World War II.

But the times of justifying this practice by using the term “political ally” to describe rewarding large bundlers doesn’t pass the smell test.  When asked to defend this last group of questionable nominees, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted: “Being a donor to the President’s campaign does not guarantee you a job in the administration,” Carney said, “but it does not prevent you from getting one.” Are hundreds of thousands of small-dollar Obama donors just waiting for their call to serve their country as high-ranking diplomats?

This defense just doesn’t cut it anymore.  The need to fill sensitive diplomatic posts with political allies has been overwhelmed by the hunger to reward large donors, especially large bundlers.

Sending abroad woefully unqualified ambassadors distinguished only by their bundling to represent the U.S. undermines our credibility abroad and diminishes this nation as a beacon of democracy. This shameful practice of handing out ambassadorships to the highest bidders should be brought to an end.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.  This opinion piece origianlly appeared in The Hill on April 22, 2014. To read it, click here.