You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Board to Death

To the frustration of many a cabinet secretary, the Obama administration is a little behind on its appointments. At this point—with only five weeks to go before the Senate breaks for recess—a little over half of the 514 positions that need filling have been filled. Some jobs are really important: The nominee for the Office of Legal Counsel has been held up for months. Obama’s choice for a USAID director came down just today. U.S. attorney nominations have slowed to a crawl.

Other jobs? Not as important.

Take, for example, the eight-person Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the five media entities—Voice of America foremost among them—tasked with broadcasting American culture and journalism around the globe. In theory, the board is supposed to serve as a “firewall” between the broadcasters’ mission of journalistic objectivity and the political whims of legislators, who would often rather see taxpayer dollars go towards burnishing America’s image abroad. By statute, the president and minority party nominate four governors each to keep a bipartisan mix. But right now, the BBG is only half full. The four currently serving members were all appointed in 2002, and have overstayed their terms by three years—if anyone left, the board would no longer have a quorum to conduct business. Journalistic wise man Walter Isaacson is rumored to be the administration’s choice for the vacant post of chairman, and it’s hard to imagine him being held up for any substantive reason. It’s also hard to imagine the administration nominating him between now and when Congress leaves town in December.

The sad saga of the BBG began almost as soon as it was created in its current form, when the U.S. Information Administration was dissolved in 1999. As this magazine documented in 2005, Bush partisan Kenneth Tomlinson turned the board into an ideological battleground—purging people whom he saw as insufficiently conservative—that hamstrung the broadcasters’ operations and drove morale into the toilet. After Tomlinson was ousted, the well-respected editor James Glassman restored the board to some order, before he was tapped as Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy in the dying days of the Bush administration.

The remaining governors—a conservative radio talk show host, a cable TV mogul, a former CEO of Telemundo, and a government affairs consultant—have settled into a comfortable rhythm, unsure of when they’ll be replaced. They meet once a month, occasionally travel to check in on foreign offices, and oversee the budget, but much of the day-to-day management falls to the BBG’s executive staff. Alan Heil, a former deputy director of Voice of America who wrote the entity’s definitive history, says that the directors in charge of each of the five broadcasters are felt to be “the most competent group of CEOs of the networks that we've had”—well able to manage their organizations without interference from the part-time, volunteer governors. Some in the public diplomacy world are at a loss to even describe why the board is there at all. “I really wonder what the utility of this board is,” says Nancy Snow, an associate professor of public diplomacy at Syracuse University. “A lot of people who are on this board, what are they doing?”

Furthermore, by the governors’ own accounting, the broadcasters are doing just fine with four people instead of eight. “Have the broadcast entities or the day-to-day functioning of all our entities been adversely impacted [by the vacancies]? The answer is no,” says Jeff Hirschberg, the consultant. “What has the impact of less than a full complement been on the remaining board members? The answer is, we’ve had to work harder.”

There have been various attempts to get new people confirmed. Under President Bush, then-minority leader Harry Reid nominated his chief of staff, Susan McCue—but she was held up by Mitch McConnell, who reportedly wanted another favorite of his for another board. McConnell then nominated the neoconservative writer Clifford May, and perhaps in retaliation, his confirmation was stalled as well. (May said that he and McCue had had coffee, anticipating their future service on the board together. “I rather liked her,” May says. “I thought it was possible that we’d move in tandem. I thought that would have been good.”) Since Obama’s election, McConnell renominated May, as well as former Wisconsin Republican Party chair Rick Graber, but both were refused by the White House.

Why all this gamesmanship? In such a deeply divided senate, where no one can make a compelling case for why the board urgently needs to be filled, there’s no incentive not to kick nominees around on the political field.

“The firewall has become the football,” said an exasperated committee staffer.

The “collective CEO” approach is a nice idea: Eight champions for the broadcasters, bringing a wide range of experiences and ideas to the project of public diplomacy. But in practice, the inability to get people through a politicized confirmation process has contributed to a sad situation for the more than 3,000 employees under the BBG’s jurisdiction: In the most recent survey of 37 federal agencies, the BBG finished dead last in three out of four categories of staff performance. This is the kind of problem that full-time leaders are brought in to fix. Picking an empowered executive who could devote his full attention to the issues—like any cabinet secretary!—would almost certainly be more effective than confirming eight people for whom international broadcasting is an extracurricular activity.

Since it doesn’t look like this deadlock is ending anytime soon, the most rational course of action may be to abolish the board, nominate a strong CEO, and have seven fewer confirmation hearings to worry about. Will that happen? Almost certainly not. Give a senator a football, and he’s not giving it away for nothing.