Kerry: Bush prefers 'paying off cronies' to selecting good ambassadors
A government watchdog sided with the White House Monday on the legality of a controversial recess appointment by President George W. Bush. The Senators who sought the Government Accountability Office's legal opinion renewed their sharp criticisms of the president for his elevation of St. Louis, Missouri-based businessman Sam Fox to the ambassadorship of Belgium.
"The White Houseís abuse of the recess appointment made it clear they care more about paying off cronies than nominating ambassadors with good judgment," said Amy Brundage, a spokesperson from Senator John Kerry (D-MA). "Congress has had enough and is going to find every way possible to ensure President Bush listens to Congress about the judgment, character, and honor of those who represent our country all over the world."
Fox, who was sworn in earlier in June as Ambassador to the small European country, made a large donation in 2004 to the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Senator Kerry was targeted by the group during his presidential campaign, and Fox failed to show much remorse for his contribution when the Massachusetts Democrat confronted him in a confirmation hearing earlier in the year.
Shortly before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing which would have recommended against sending Fox's nomination to the Senate floor for a vote, President Bush withdrew the Republican donor's nomination. When the Senate went into recess, Bush made an April 4 recess appointment late in the day.
Senate Democrats immediately raised legal objections to Bush's move. They claimed that Fox could not draw a paycheck for his government service because the Senate had not confirmed him, and that it was also illegal for an ambassador to serve voluntarily. They sought a opinion from the Government Accountability Office, Congress's chief independent oversight entity, on whether Bush's recess appointment was legally sound.
On June 8, the GAO responded, although its letter to Senators Chris Dodd (CT), Kerry, and Bob Casey (PA) was not publicized until Monday.
The GAO agreed that Fox could not receive a paycheck for his service.
"Mr. Fox is prohibited from receiving compensation for his recess appointment as Ambassador to Belgium until his nomination is approved by the Senate," wrote Gary L. Kepplinger, the GAO's General Counsel, a fact that the State Department had already apparently acknowledged.
But Kepplinger went on to say that Fox was allowed to serve voluntarily, as his circumstance was an exception to laws that ban voluntary service by government employees.
"Similar to the situation in which an employee gratuitously waives his compensation in advance, which is an exception to the voluntary services prohibition, Mr. Fox accepted the ambassadorial appointment with full knowledge that he would not be entitled to compensation," he wrote to the senators.
The GAO counsel also argued that a restriction of the president's recess appointment authority in this situation would have ramifications on the separation of powers.
"Serious constitutional issues would arise if Congress attempted to use the power of the purse to directly restrict the President from making a recess appointment, just as the courts have prevented Congress from restricting the Presidentís pardon authority," he argued.
Senator Dodd said he appreciated the GAO's work, but continued to criticize the president for his action.
"I am glad that we were able to seek clarification from the GAO regarding the legality of this matter. However, I still stand by my assertion that the manner in which the President recess-appointed Ambassador Fox was underhanded at best," Dodd said in a statement released to RAW STORY. "The American people deserve better from their President and their Ambassadors."
It was unclear whether there would be any subsequent steps on the part of the Senate with regard to the Fox nomination. RAW STORY reported in April that the Senate was considering forcing the President to send Fox's nomination back to the Senate, where it would certainly face defeat.
But the Secretary of State's legal counsel, John Bellinger, wrote to the GAO that "The President has not decided whether to renominate Mr. Fox."