Opinion: A gov’t. of hacks and incompetents

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017 Opinion

As head of Rhino Resources, David Zatezalo oversaw a coal-mining company with one of the worst safety records in the industry. Conditions in Rhino mines were so bad that the U.S. Mine Health and Safety Administration twice cited the company for broad “pattern of violations,” a rare designation “reserved for mines that pose the greatest risk to the health and safety of miners, particularly those with chronic violation records.”

Thanks to President Trump and his Republican colleagues in the Senate, Zatezalo now runs the Mine Health and Safety Administration, the agency that gave him so much trouble.

Brett Talley is a 36-year-old lawyer from Alabama who began his practice of law just three years ago, has never tried a case and has yet to even argue a motion in a courtroom. On the other hand, he does have experience as a ghost hunter, gained as a member of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group. As the group’s founder told the Daily Beast, “Mainly we may go into a house between maybe seven at night and six in the morning and stay up all night long and see if we can see what’s going on.”

Talley has defended “the first KKK” founded after the Civil War, explaining that it was created to respond to “the perceived depredations of the Union army during reconstruction.” In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, he warned that President Obama was about to “launch the greatest attack on our constitutional freedoms in our lifetime,” and pledged himself “to the NRA; financially, politically, and intellectually.”

Yet earlier this month, even after the American Bar Association unanimously rated Talley “unqualified,” the Senate Judiciary Committee — voting along strict party lines — recommended Talley’s confirmation to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge.

Sam Clovis is a conservative talk-radio host from the influential state of Iowa, and served as co-chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Given that background, a position with the Trump administration was all but guaranteed as part of the expected spoils of victory. What was not expected was the decision to name Clovis as agriculture undersecretary for research, education and economics. That post, also described as the top scientist in the science-heavy Agriculture Department, is by law reserved for “distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.”

Clovis meets none of those job requirements. However, his confirmation was considered almost certain until it was discovered that during the campaign, he had played a role in contacting top Russian officials. Rather than expose himself to Senate questioning about that role, he withdrew as a nominee.

All over the administration, this game is being played. People who would never make the first cut in any other administration, Republican or Democrat, are being installed in important policy-making jobs. Others, like Zatezalo at the mine safety agency, have been put in positions where they undermine their agency’s mission. The leading candidate to head the 2020 census is a GOP expert at gerrymandering. The Environmental Protection Agency has been remade as the Industry Protection Agency, with scientists and science pushed aside in favor of corporate lobbyists. At the State Department, an entire generation of experienced diplomats is being pushed out the door, with no replacement.

Long after this is over, the quiet damage now being done will haunt us in ways we can’t even imagine.

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