There is nothing new about presidents who are eager to overstep the bounds of their power, whether they are conservative or liberal in their political views. But the strategies that George W. Bush used to strengthen his presidency — and weaken other branches of government — have been more widespread than the ones employed in the past. Rather than isolated abuses of executive power, such as Bill Clinton’s bombing of Kosovo without congressional approval, the actions of the Bush administration have been the most systematic abuses of executive authority since the branch’s powers were curtailed in the wake of Watergate.

“You know how there are all these checks and balances in the government?” says Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. “Under the Bush administration, all that was turned on its head. When you look at what they did, it’s like reading the opposite of the Federalist Papers.” Despite the fact that Alexander Hamilton clearly articulated that there should be checks on the president’s power — especially in a time of war — the Bush administration selectively interpreted the Federalist Papers to claim that Congress has no right to restrict the president. Government lawyers such as John Yoo, who worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, went so far as to assert that Hamilton’s view of “executive unity” allows for a supercharged executive branch with unlimited power.

Some of Bush’s power grabs made national news. Unaccountable military contractors in Iraq and ideological shenanigans at the Justice Department were front-page headlines. However, to gain a true sense of Bush’s legacy we must look beyond these individual transgressions and examine how the administration employed politically motivated strategies throughout the federal government — with devastating results. In other words, to understand what happened to government under the Bush administration, we must look at the methods that were used to break it down.

These methods, which included everything from meddling with scientific research to get the desired results to appointing former lobbyists to watchdog positions, were not, of course, all directly supervised by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, or other high-level officials. They were often carried out by an array of lower-level officials, many of whom were political appointees, all of whom were operating in the same climate of secrecy and working for a government that condoned and encouraged attempts to expand the reach of the executive branch and its political agenda.

These are deeply entrenched problems that do not lend themselves to easy solutions. It is unlikely that they can be resolved in the first month — or even the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency. He will need to take a systematic approach to fixing government, just as Bush took a systematic approach to breaking it down. To what extent Obama is willing to do that and how quickly he will embark on the project are urgent questions. “Giving up power is one of the most difficult things to do,” says Karen J. Greenberg, executive director at New York University Law School’s Center on Law and Security. As she points out, George Washington may be celebrated for relinquishing kingly power, but scaling back is not so common these days.

In order to roll back the damage Bush has done over the past eight years, we must have some idea of its scope. In the following pages, we survey some of the systematic ways the Bush administration undermined the federal government, in the hope that the new administration can begin to repair the damage.

Juking the Stats

The HBO series The Wire introduced viewers to the concept of police “reducing crime” by simply changing the statistics on record — in essence, coding in felonies as misdemeanors. The cops on the show call it “juking the stats,” and it’s a practice that became all too familiar during the Bush years. Administration officials would repeatedly call for a review of the literature of a subject until they got their desired interpretations. They would ask scientists to show proof that a policy they opposed would cause damage to the environment — or the reverse, that a policy they supported would not hurt the environment. When the facts flew in the face of the Bush agenda, the administration told its agencies to get new facts.

Department of the Interior: Vice President Dick Cheney took a special interest in the Klamath River Basin in Oregon and California, where a law prevented farmers from irrigating the land during a drought because using water from nearby canals would imperil an endangered species of fish. “Cheney asked, ‘Isn’t there some way around the law?'” says Barton Gellman, author ofAngler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Cheney called for a scientific review, which cast doubt on the research showing that using canal water would harm the fish, and cleared the way for the area to be irrigated. As a result, 77,000 salmon washed up dead on the banks of the river — the biggest man-made fish kill in the West.

Department of Health and Human services: Until the summer of 2002, the National Institutes of Health maintained that women who had an abortion were at no greater risk of breast cancer than those who had not undergone the procedure. But, under Bush, the NIH released a fact sheet that said the evidence was “unclear.” The fact sheet made no mention of “the largest, and probably the most reliable, study of this topic,” which found no link between abortion and breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. In a similar incident, a Centers for Disease Control fact sheet was altered to downplay the effectiveness of condoms in reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Rep. Henry Waxman and other Democratic lawmakers called it “part of an Orwellian trend at HHS.” They confirmed, “simply put, information that used to be based on science is being systematically removed from the public when it conflicts with the administration’s political agenda.”

Department of Veterans Affairs: Secretary Jim Nicholson embarked on a campaign in 2005 to reduce the number of claims made by veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, announcing a plan to review the cases in which veterans receive full disability benefits for the disorder. He said he wanted to root out “fraud.” Shortly thereafter, a New Mexico veteran who was undergoing review committed suicide, partly over concern about the review, according to veterans’ advocates. On Nov. 10, 2005, Nicholson discontinued the claim review.

Suppressing Science

The Bush administration didn’t just meddle with research, it suppressed solid facts when they were less than favorable to its politics. Time and time again, when the science clearly called on government agencies to adopt stricter regulations or change policies, federal agencies diligently kept the information from becoming public — and avoided having to change their behavior. If they couldn’t rewrite the truth, then they kept it from getting out.

Department of Commerce: The Commerce Department’s complicated media-relations policy made it difficult for scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to speak publicly about the links between human behavior and global warming. In 2007, reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that the Commerce Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality went so far as to water down NOAA scientists’ environmental testimony.

Department of Agriculture: In Ames, Iowa, the Agricultural Research Service prevented one of its microbiologists from publishing research indicating that industrial hog farming may contribute to antibiotic resistance. The Bush administration stopped the scientist from publishing11 times between September 2001 and April 2002. In a February 2002 memo, the Agricultural Research Service told its scientists to seek prior approval on all manuscripts related to “sensitive issues,” including agricultural practices with negative health or environmental consequences such as water contamination. In September 2003, the White House stopped the Natural Resources Conservation Service from reprinting a popular brochure explaining carbon sequestration in soil and what farmers can do to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Department of Health and Human Services: A 400-page report, Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances, put together by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control, warned that 9 million people who live in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee may face elevated risks of health problems from exposure to dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, and mercury. Since 2004, dozens of experts have reviewed various incarnations of the report — but CDC officials have refused to release it. Instead, they have sought additional revision and review. And in 2007, just before CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding testified in front of a Senate committee on the hazardous effects of climate change on public health, the White House Office of Management and Budget edited out nearly half of her testimony. The expurgated text articulated climate change’s direct effects on Americans.

Rewriting the Rules

Many of the Bush administration’s tactics that changed government policy were executed in ways that received little or no oversight. Whether by drawing up legal memos or making procedural changes, officials put forth a roster of regulations that dramatically altered the federal agencies — without going to Congress.

Department of Justice: At the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, government attorney John Yoo expanded the definition of torture in an infamous August 2002 memo, allowing American interrogators to inflict almost any sort of pain on detainees in order to obtain information. In addition, interrogation techniques that are widely regarded as torture, including sleep deprivation and the use of dogs, were approved in U.S.–run detention facilities in Iraq, creating an extra-legal situation that led to the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in late 2003 — and to an international scandal when photographs from the prison were shown to the public in April 2004.

Department of Education: In August, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights wrote a letter to federally assisted universities outlining, in a few short bullet points, its new and more restrictive policy on race-neutral college admissions. Completely reversing the Clinton administration’s support for race-based affirmative action, Bush’s OCR compels institutions to seek diversity that is “broader than mere racial diversity,” make a “serious good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives,” and ensure that “the use of race [has] a logical end point.” If universities don’t comply, they don’t get federal funds. Traditionally, the OCR enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, but under the Bush administration, the OCR has set up more barriers than avenues to educational institutions trying to attract diverse students and provide equal access.

Hiring Friends and Firing Enemies

As anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist once said, “Personnel is policy.” The Bush administration certainly took that to heart, enforcing uniformity and keeping employees in line by taking pains to hire under-qualified political allies (like the conservative-college graduates at the Justice Department) and by firing workers, even party loyalists, who dared to disagree or otherwise cause trouble.

Department of Labor: Jack Spadaro, an official with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, had a reputation as a whistleblower for alerting authorities to an environmental catastrophe at West Virginia’s Martin County Coal, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, in October 2000. When Bush took office, he promptly put a political appointee in charge of the MSHA Office, and then officials went after Spadaro, firing him over accusations that he had violated federal rules, inappropriately used a government credit card, and engaged in insubordination. By late 2001, Spadaro resigned. “I’ve been in federal government for 27 years,” he said at the time, “and this is the most lawless administration I have ever seen.”

Department of Veterans Affairs: When Anthony Principi requested an increase for the agency’s fiscal year 2005 budget, President George W. Bush balked. He recommended that the VA receive a budget of $65.3 billion, $1.2 billion less than what Principi wanted. Principi, who had served as an acting secretary of the VA in the first Bush administration, knows how things work in Washington. Nevertheless, he spoke out during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Feb. 4, 2004. By December, Principi was out of a job. His departure marked a turning point for the VA. Many of the programs that he had championed, such as a mental-health task force and efforts to improve claims processing for veterans who have been injured in combat, lost the strong backing in the agency and were allowed to languish.

Department of Justice: Senior aides at this agency were particularly scrupulous in hiring like-minded people, extending their vetting process even to Justice Department honors programs and interns. According to a report issued by the agency’s Office of Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility, as reported by The New York Times, White House aides ran a seminar titled “The Thorough Process of Investigation” in which they explained how to screen applicants by using Internet searches with the name of the applicant and key words such as “guns,” “abortion,” and “Florida recount” to determine how the applicants felt about these issues. Afterward, a decision could be made about whether or not to hire them.

Department of Housing and Urban Development: In 2006, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson told conference attendees in Dallas that he squashed a contract with a minority businessman because the man disapproved of President Bush. “Why should I reward someone who doesn’t like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president?” Jackson asked. “Logic says they don’t get the contract.” In contrast, Jackson’s logic says: Reward friends! He gave a housing contract to William Hairston, a friend from Hilton Head, South Carolina, in early 2006; he also gave a housing contract to friend Michael Hollis, an Atlanta lawyer who made about $1 million from the deal. When William Thorson, executive administrator of the New Orleans Housing Authority, spoke up and pointed out that Jackson’s contract with Hairston was not only crooked but also duplicative (a contract had already been signed for the work Hairston would do), Thorson was called up to Washington, D.C., after which he decided to take early retirement.

Privatizing and Outsourcing

The U.S. government has steadily come to rely on private contractors. Since the 1980s, the number of government employees has been reduced from 2.2 million to 1.8 million today. Most notably, under Bush, the military has become especially prone to privatization, with more than 200,000 contractors serving in Iraq, a force that is larger than the 140,000 U.S. troops deployed there. Government employees have a special responsibility to uphold principles of the United States. Private contractors do not, which means they are operating in a legal gray area. The problem does not seem to be going away anytime soon. As Scott Horton, a consultant with Human Rights First, says, military contractors belong to “a growth industry” and have reason to be optimistic about the future — even under President Obama.

Central Intelligence Agency: Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center, says he first realized things in the intelligence world were different — really different — when he gave a speech to a group of CIA officers, and over half of them came up to him and handed him business cards. “I was startled,” he says. The officers were private military contractors. And, as Grenier discovered during his most recent stint at the CIA, even sensitive work, such as intelligence-gathering and interrogating terrorism suspects, has been contracted out. Civilian contractors employed by CACI International were implicated in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, but have, by and large, evaded prosecution.

Department of Labor: In a broad way, the regulatory functions of the Labor Department have been outsourced wholesale. Under previous presidents, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration made rules to ensure worker safety. But during the Bush years, OSHA has more or less suspended its rule-making functions, relying instead on a system of voluntary industry “alliances.” Cooperation, not confrontation, became the new watch word, according to Secretary Elaine Chao.

Department of Homeland Security: Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, armed Blackwater contractors rushed into the city to maintain security. As The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill reported, they were tasked with “securing neighborhoods” and “confronting criminals.” The contractors were fully deputized by the Louisiana government to make arrests. Blackwater was later contracted by the federal government to provide armed security for Federal Emergency Management Agency reconstruction projects in Louisiana.

Department of Agriculture: During the Bush years, outsourcing was rampant at the Forest Service. In 2006, the agency made plans to outsource nearly two-thirds of its work force, a move the Bush administration later claimed had saved taxpayers millions of dollars. But a 2007 joint report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the National Federation of Federal Employees Forest Service Council found that the outsourcing actually cost more than nine times what it claimed to save. To boot, the Government Accountability Office warned in 2008 that outsourcing would hobble the agency’s ability to manage wildfires.

Church-ifying the State

One of the most comprehensive and far-reaching efforts of the Bush administration focused on a mandate put forth by the religious right. After his election, Bush tried to muscle though an ambitious faith-based bill, one that would have eased restrictions on religious groups that receive federal grants. But legislators balked at some of its more extreme provisions — especially those exempting religious groups from federal anti-discrimination laws — and the bill stalled. As a result, Bush created his faith-based initiative by a series of executive orders in 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2006, establishing both a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and satellite offices at a dozen agencies. He also lifted long-standing regulations that once safeguarded the church/state divide. For example, under the new rules, staff members at faith-based organizations that receive federal funds are now allowed to ask whether or not job applicants believe in a higher power — and can hire or reject them depending on how they answer the question.

Department of Labor: Soon after Bush launched his initiative, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao announced tens of millions of dollars in grants each year for faith-based work-force training and prisoner re-entry programs around the country, including Jubilee Jobs in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Bridge to Hope Ministries in Redmond, Oregon. One such program, Faith Partners in Colorado Springs, Colorado, teaches people how to find a job through finding Jesus.

Department of Veterans Affairs: Bush’s initiative allowed a set of institutional changes at Veterans Affairs that have had a significant impact on the constitutional separation of church and state. In the past, faith-based groups supported by federal grants had to agree that they would not use religion while helping veterans. Under the new regulations, individuals supported by federal funds do not have to make this promise. Meanwhile, at the VA Health Care Network in upstate New York, “spirituality assessments” of patients are conducted by a chaplain within 24 hours of a patient’s arrival, according to a lawsuit that was filed by members of a Wisconsin-based organization, Freedom from Religion Foundation. A VA hospital in Big Spring, Virginia, also conducts a basic spiritual assessment, with such questions as “When talking to people, how often do you mention spiritual or religious things?” and “How often do you pray?” And at the Loma Linda VA Medical Center in California, a questionnaire states one of the goals of the assessment: “Maintain Optimal Spiritual Health.” In some facilities, these spiritual assessments are documented in a patient’s medical progress report.

Appointing Industry Cronies

True to the classic metaphor of a fox guarding the henhouse, the administration continually selected private-sector employees for government jobs regulating the very industries for which they used to work. This allowed former lobbyists and private-sector employees to enact policies at odds with the department’s mission and to look the other way when it came time to enforce regulations.

Department of Labor: Bush appointed David Lauriski head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2001. Prior to his appointment, Lauriski lobbied to ease government regulations of coal-dust levels. Once in charge of the agency, he revived his effort, despite protests by health experts that it could increase the incidence of black-lung disease. Elsewhere at Labor, Bush appointed Paul DeCamp to serve as administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division, which oversees labor standards and minimum-wage enforcement. Yet prior to his federal post, DeCamp represented Wal-Mart, which faces more than 50 wage-and-hour lawsuits. Until he resigned from the Labor Department in January 2008, DeCamp sought to gut overtime-pay protections.

Department of the Interior: The Bush administration put bureaucrats in charge of making decisions about whether or not to proceed with roads, buildings, and other projects that might harm endangered species, bypassing the scientific experts. “A decade from now someone’s going to say, ‘How was this allowed to happen? How could a company do this? How could the river dry up? How is it that suddenly there is much more acid rain?'” says Angler author Gellman. “And you’ll go back and look, and you’ll go, ‘Wow, we didn’t notice that. And look what’s happened since.'”

Department of Health and Human services: In October 2007, Dr. Susan Orr was appointed deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Population Affairs, in which capacity she was responsible for advising higher-up officials on “a wide range of reproductive health topics,” as well as overseeing the $300 million-per-year family-planning program authorized under Title X, which insures access to contraception for low-income women. Orr, however, opposes contraception access. In 2001, when President Bush proposed eliminating the requirement that federal employees’ health insurance offer a range of options for birth-control coverage, Orr, then the senior director for marriage and family at the Family Research Council, told The Washington Post, “We’re quite pleased because fertility is not a disease. It’s not a medical necessity that you have [contraception].” Orr resigned her post in May 2008.

Department of Agriculture: Over a dozen high-ranking Bush appointees to the USDA came directly from the meat industry. Prior to becoming the department’s press secretary from 2001 to 2005, Alisa Harrison was public-relations director for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (the beef industry’s largest trade group). Dale Moore served as NCBA’s chief lobbyist before becoming chief of staff for Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. Then there’s Charles Lambert, also from the NCBA — erstwhile lobbyist and chief economist — who became deputy undersecretary for the USDA’s marketing and regulatory programs. He worked hard to deny mad-cow disease; in a June 2003 hearing, he rejected the possibility that the disease could penetrate the U.S. Six months later, it did. As Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser wrote in 2004, “You’d have a hard time finding a federal agency more completely dominated by the industry it was created to regulate.”

De-Funding Dissenters

When the Bush administration couldn’t change the personnel or meddle with the mission of a specific agency, it had only one recourse: cut the purse strings. Just as the administration rewarded its faith-based programs with ample federal funds, it made cuts in areas that ran counter to its ideology. Money talks, and in the Bush administration, its voice was distinctly conservative.

Department of Energy: Despite his professed interest in alternative energy sources, Bush repeatedly recommended cuts to programs working to develop wind, solar, nuclear, and hydrogen power technology. After Bushed announced cuts in the 2005 budget, William Prindle, deputy director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington think tank, told The Christian Science Monitor, “At this point in time, with high energy prices and pressures, you’d think maybe we’d want to invest in a suite of energy-efficiency programs that make a dent right away.” Bush also made repeated cuts to research into energy conservation.

Agency for International Development (USAID) : The Global Gag Rule, which Bush reinstated on his first day in office, prevents the use of federal money to support international groups that perform abortions — even if the U.S. assistance does not fund abortions but instead pays for contraception and HIV–prevention programs. The ban is so strict that USAID cannot even provide condoms to international health organizations working in countries with some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world.


Research support for this article provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.