American Elephants


How Smart Government Becomes Abusive Government by The Elephant's Child

“One of the greatest uses of scandal is to vividly demonstrate what new laws are needed and to create the political conditions to get them enacted.”

John Steele Gordon has a fascinating essay in The American, on the uses of scandal. He ranges back and forth in American history to illustrate some of our greatest scandals and how they played out.

Washington is suddenly awash with major scandals. The IRS has been caught abusing its powers regarding conservative organizations. The AP had its phone records seized without a court order. The White House explanation for the Benghazi attack has been shown to have been a tissue of lies made for political purposes. There might well be more scandals to come. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has reportedly been routinely waiving the substantial fees to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests for liberal organizations but not for conservative ones.

This has produced, naturally, a cacophony of talk among the chattering classes, much of it basically gossip. And there’s nothing wrong with that. To gossip, after all, is to be human.

Extracting the truth about the scandal is something else entirely. The information comes slowly in bits and pieces. How long will the investigation keep the public interest? Of all the excuses and alibis being offered for extremely bad behavior by the Obama administration, the most interesting one came from David Axlerod, onetime major adviser to President Obama:

Part of being president is that there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know, because the government is so vast.

As a subhead in the Wall Street Journal asked: “If the President doesn’t run the government, then who does?”

Anyone who has ever worked in a large organization knows that the enemy is bureaucracy. How many layers of management are the optimum and when does it all begin to break down? Few is better, and smaller organizations are better. The real problem is that there are few things that the government should be doing, and fewer that they can do well. I suppose it’s natural for someone who does not have great expertise in management to assume that things would be better if the government was just in charge. Obama will be the case study for that concept for years.

There are things that only the government can do. National Defense, a military, interstate highways, immigration, foreign trade, foreign affairs.  But there are far more things the federal government should not be doing. If you go to Wikipedia and enter “List of U.S. Federal Agencies” and separately, enter “Independent Agencies of the U.S. Government” — the first is the vast number of agencies under the various cabinet positions, and the second is the agencies that are independent of any cabinet position. These are sobering lists. Is it possible to reduce the sway of government or has it taken on a life of its own, growing inexorably?

Your New Health Care System” instantly makes one realize that ObamaCare is just another scandal. This arrogant overreach will not work, is a huge drag on the economy, and is destroying our health care system. Kathleen Sebelius’s attempt to get the health care providers she regulates to donate to the cause of rolling out ObamaCare is a separate and distinct scandal, aside from being against the law.

One of the greatest uses of scandal is to vividly demonstrate what new laws are needed and to create the political conditions to get them enacted. In the case of the IRS, what is needed seems to be a strong sense of ethics. Can you legislate ethics and forbid politicizing the work of an agency? They are a unionized agency. Can these people be fired? Or do the bad apples among government workers simply move to another department?

In a book titled The New, New Deal, author Michael Grunewald writes of the Energy Department’s Office of Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs. The Recovery Act allocated $5 billion to a three-year program to weatherize 600,000 low-income families’ homes through better windows, insulation, furnaces and air conditioners. The agency was informally known as “the Turkey Farm” for the number of sub-par civil servants sent there over the years when no other agency would take them. He told the story of an excellent manager’s attempts to make the department work. She never stood a chance, Grunwald said. “They knew that political appointees come and go, but civil servants are forever. They call themselves “WeBe’s,” as in “We be here, you be gone.”

So we need not only new laws to fix the underlying problems that produced the scandals, but also a serious effort to get rid of unnecessary and useless agencies. Can we retain the public interest long enough to put real pressure on Congress to make the changes? Can we produce enough activists demanding change?

Political scientist Alan Wolfe has suggested that Conservatives cannot resolve the tensions inherent in “managing government agencies whose missions —indeed, whose very existence —they believe to be illegitimate.” William Voegeli responded: “If conservatives govern badly because they stand outside the borders of modern government yelling Shrink, liberals should govern brilliantly, since their raison d’être is to vindicate the activist state’s right, duty and capacity to handle all the responsibilities entrusted to it over the past century, and then to assign it still more. ” So there you have the conundrum.


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