Stewart Baker Crosses a Line - What’s the Strategy?

I’ve been nothing if not dogged about responding to DHS’ advocacy for REAL ID and E-Verify. I’ve had fun responding to post after DHS post on the “Leadership Journal” blog promoting E-Verify. But I let one recent post from DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker go by. Enough people have pointed me to it and asked me what I thought that I’m finally drawn to comment.

Baker’s post, “Exactly What Do They Want?,” addressed none of the substance of the E-Verify program, but simply attacked a group called the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

 Here’s a taste:

SHRM lobbies for the HR execs who do corporate hiring. It also opposes E-Verify. I suppose corporate hiring is easier if you can hire illegal workers, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that SHRM wants to kill a program that makes it harder to hire illegal workers.

But SHRM has taken Washington arts to a new level. SHRM says it doesn’t want to kill E-Verify. SHRM says it wants to replace E-Verify with a new, better program to prevent illegal hiring. A closer look shows that the SHRM alternative is doomed to fail – and will take years to do so. So for a decade, while the SHRM alternative is failing, no one will have a good tool to actually prevent illegal hires. Which may be precisely what SHRM wants.

Politics can be ugly. And attacking the motives of your opponents is ugly politics. But what matters in the first instance is that it’s politics at all. Stewart Baker is an executive branch official who was appointed to his office, not elected. His role is to administer the laws, not to participate in the political processes that decide what the laws are. He crossed a crucial line by becoming a critic - and a harsh critic at that - of a private association because of its public policy stance.

It’s interesting to speculate about what caused Baker’s fit of pique. A theme in his post is the potential transfer of responsibilities for verification of workers from the Department of Homeland Security to other agencies like SSA and HHS. Job #1 for government ministers is to build their fiefdoms, and the SHRM’s preferred employment verification vehicle, the New Employee Verification Act, would be a DHS bureaucrat’s biggest outrage.

But everyone who knows him knows that Stewart Baker is savvy and cool. It’s not like him to lose his temper - especially not in such a public way. So I expect that this is part of some clever strategy, but I just don’t know what it is. Baker’s vitriol has drawn justified indignation from the folks at SHRM. The comments on Baker’s post have lots of interesting tidbits, including allegations that Baker consistently declined to meet with SHRM. He got written up in Politico for starting this public imbroglio. And the human resources blogosphere is popping with discussion of Baker’s explosion.

So, does Stewart Baker surprise us all and pull a rabbit out of a hat? Or has he really lost his cool? It could be frustrating, as he winds down his stint at DHS, to look down the road behind him at his key issues: the E-Verify program limping along, and the REAL ID Act in full collapse.