$170,000 grant to support WSU Tri-Cities study of presidential appointees

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldDecember 1, 2013 

A $170,000 federal grant will enable Washington State University Tri-Cities to study the ties presidential appointees have in government and corporations.

Mikhail Balaev, an assistant professor of sociology, will lead a team of graduate students in reviewing the employment and income data for 7,000 presidential appointees dating back to 1978.

The data could show how influence from different industries waxes and wanes, Balaev said.

"We often hear in the media 'the president appointed such-and-such person to such-and-such position,' " he said. "But there hasn't been a systematic analysis."

Research into the political influence of corporations isn't new, Balaev said. Sociologists and political scientists have often looked at the effects of campaign contributions and lobbying on the relationship between the corporate and government spheres.

The issue of presidential appointees has also been in the news lately, as Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster rule that allowed Republicans to block appointments made by President Obama.

While most political analysts worry about the immediate political connections of people appointed to government positions, Balaev said he's concerned with their background in the corporate world, or at least ties to specific interests. Analyzing and documenting where those appointees were before their government service and even where they end up afterward can paint a broader picture of political influence beyond a single election cycle.

"They occupy the top positions; they are the decision makers," he said.

The grant is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, a federal agency.

Federal disclosure forms require potential appointees to identify any board memberships they've held, some of their consulting contracts and other ties to corporations and interest groups.

Balaev's preliminary research has turned up interesting details. Former President George W. Bush had officials hailing from 24 different industries leading different parts of the government. Some of those industries, such as agriculture, have little or no role within President Obama's administration. Education, finance and think tanks are better represented now.

Balaev grew up in Russia at the end of the Soviet era. The consolidation of power within small groups of elite corporate officials, who are becoming highly secretive in their dealings, is similar to what he witnessed in his homeland when a political elite controlled everything, he said.

"We have a lot of undue corporate influence in the government, and we have to address that problem," he said.

It will be a couple of years before the database is available, and even then, Balaev said it won't be finished. He envisions adding more government officials to it, such as the people appointed to congressional committees, ambassadors to other countries and even federal judges.

"The freedoms Americans think they have can disappear," he said. "You have to work to maintain your freedoms."

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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