The latest casualty of what can only be called the administration’s vetting hysteria (call it “vetsteria” maybe for short) is Jon Cannon, a longtime career civil servant at the Environmental Protection Agency who served in political positions at EPA during the Clinton administration – first as assistant secretary for management (where I got to know him a bit) and later as general counsel – and had been nominated as deputy administrator at EPA until withdrawing last week. Cannon, who currently teaches at the University of Virginia Law School, served on the board of a nonprofit that had apparently misused EPA grant money in some way. Service on a nonprofit board is itself a public service, and there was no suggestion that Cannon had in the slightest way profited from this problem or knew about it.
According to a recent article in the Financial Times, cafeteria talk at Brookings is dominated by stories about “vetting hell.” The article discussed a candidate who ran into trouble when unable to produce receipts for furniture bought a decade ago that was later donated to charity, and another asked questions about his wife’s sex life at college. Someone I know told me he had been grilled about whether it was appropriate to deduct all his monthly wireless internet fee as a business expense.
The worst thing is that these wounds are self-inflicted. The Republican Senator who had taken this issue up, based on background information provided in connection with Cannon’s nomination indicated that he didn’t regard the problem as a bar to confirmation. There has been some discussion among Democrats about why these problems have cropped up more in Democratic than Republican administrations. If one rejects the unlikely suggestion that Democrats are less ethical than Republicans, it would appear that the difference is in the level of self-imposed vetsteria.
This is bad for good government. In the short term, it delays getting a political team in place. (I wrote in a recent blog post that one shouldn’t assume that cabinet secretaries are “home alone” without political appointees, but of course it is important to have a political team on the job.) More broadly, it deprives the government of honorable, smart potential appointees such as Jon Cannon, while discouraging others, unwilling to go through vetsteria, from seeking appointment in the first place.