Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has a new plan to end the bipartisan tradition of appointing big donors as ambassadors. The Democratic presidential candidate is also calling on all other candidates to do the same.
“I’m pledging to put America’s national interests ahead of campaign donations and end the corrupt practice of selling cushy diplomatic posts to wealthy donors,” Warren said in a Medium post published Friday.
The practice of doling out ambassadorships to political supporters is one of the few remnants of a spoils system where political parties reward their supporters and benefactors with plum government jobs. It’s a rarity among advanced democracies, but a bipartisan tradition in the United States. And it’s been getting worse in recent years.
Since the 1980s, political appointees have increasingly fewer professional qualifications, like regional knowledge or language proficiency, that would be expected for career diplomats, according to a study by Marquette University Law School associate professor Ryan Scoville. This trend dovetails with the rising level of campaign donations given by these political appointees to the presidents who nominate them.
Former President Barack Obama nominated dozens of his campaign bundlers ― those who raised $50,000 or more ― to ambassadorships in Europe, New Zealand, Singapore and Latin America. At the same time, Obama appointed one of the highest percentages of career foreign service officers to ambassadorships.
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush similarly appointed big donors to key ambassadorships. Warren even criticized Bush back in 2005 for appointing then-Ameriquest CEO Roland Arnall, a major Bush donor, as ambassador to the Netherlands.
All presidents since Franklin Roosevelt gave out around 30 percent of their ambassador nominations to political appointees. Political appointees tend to be sent to safer, more stable countries with the biggest donors getting the cushiest postings in the states with the best weather and most popular with tourists. Presidents normally prefer professional diplomats for the world’s hot spots.
And while all presidents have rewarded their supporters and benefactors with ambassadorships, President Donald Trump has taken it to another level. Nearly half of his ambassador appointments have gone to political appointees. He’s nominated at least 14 donors to his inauguration to key positions and many more who contributed to his campaign or the Republican Party.
Some of Trump’s donor appointees have stalled in the Senate due to their clear lack of qualifications and knowledge. After being nominated as ambassador to the Bahamas, Doug Manchester, a billionaire real estate magnate and major Republican Party donor stumbled in a confirmation hearing by saying the Bahamas were a protectorate of the U.S. (The Bahamas are a sovereign nation.) Lynda Blanchard, Trump’s donor nominee to Slovenia, shared Facebook memes alleging that Hillary Clinton was a murderer. (She is not.) Neither nominee has been confirmed.
Warren’s call to end this practice would fulfill calls from the American Academy of Diplomacy and the American Foreign Service Association to either fully professionalize the United States diplomatic corps or at least appoint more career foreign service officers.