Falling Down

All the participants in this discussion seem to agree that James Q. Wilson’s book, Bureaucracy, still offers valuable insights, a quarter century after its initial publication. At the same time, we all seem to agree that Wilson’s book didn’t prepare readers for the scale of dysfunction we now see in the federal bureaucracy. We have some disagreement, however, about the explanation of current patterns and what’s most disturbing about them.

John McGinnis stresses that federal officials – or at least, a lot of staff attorneys in the Justice Department – are too committed to left-wing visions and too ready to let their ideological commitments influence their professional judgment. So McGinnis wants courts to exercise more independent judgment when reviewing determinations. He also wants presidents to appoint more of the officials who actually make decisions.

Kimberly Hendrickson and Georg Vanberg emphasize a related concern, that bureaucrats are too self-serving or too devoted to their own agendas. They both worry that bureaucracy is often “too effective” or “too energetic” – on behalf of goals or programs that lack broad political support. They both urge greater oversight by Congress, though without expressing much optimism about the results.

I am sympathetic to all these comments and all these proposals for improving things. Still, like Hendrickson and Vanberg, I’m not optimistic. But my principal concern is, in a way, narrower – though I think the roots of the problem go very deep. What strikes me as most disturbing is not mere ideological division over proper policy but – to borrow a favorite term of human rights advocates – a “culture of impunity” when it comes to grossly negligent or abusive conduct by federal agencies. Such conduct would once have been regarded as “scandalous” but now brings none of the consequences that used to be expected in the wake of a “scandal.”

What’s the point of congressional oversight, after all, when Congress discovers and protests abuses and nothing happens in consequence? The House of Representatives voted to censure the sitting Attorney General for withholding documents, after it was discovered that government agents had been delivering guns to Mexican drug traffickers. The Attorney General not only continued to hold office but continued to admonish others on their moral failings. Congressional investigators showed that the IRS was relentlessly partisan in withholding tax exemptions from conservative groups but those revelations seem to have had no consequence for any one beyond the one official who retired.

The NSA allowed all its operations to be shared with the world by a low-level contractor. No one was fired, no one disgraced. Mistakes happened. And they still do. Recent reports indicate that more than a year after the mass data loss, the State Department can’t keep its own diplomatic traffic safe from cyber-snooping by foreign powers.   And HHS, which can’t provide a fully functional website for people to sign-up for mandated insurance coverage, also can’t protect users from cyber-spying when they do submit such information.

On Wilson’s telling, agencies should have warned their Obama political managers against risking intense controversy – and that should have generated restraint and caution (or attention) on the part of the political managers.   Why didn’t that happen in these and similar cases? My sense is that administrators don’t worry as much about egregiously bad performance because not much happens now when they fail, even when they fail spectacularly. Washington (and the country) seems so caught up in larger partisan debates that neither the President nor Congress can provide adequate comeuppance for sheer bureaucratic malfeasance.

If I’m right about this, it marks a change from the political setting that Wilson described at the end of the 1980s. And a descent to a lower level. Much of the world takes for granted that government and government officials will be corrupt and self-serving and nothing much can be done except to offer up well-placed bribes or to remain too inconspicuous to draw official notice. If we haven’t sunk as low as Mexico or Ukraine, we seem to be sliding that way.  These are countries with democratic elections and a good deal of open, public debate.   What they don’t have is an institutional culture that supports honest and at least minimally conscientious government administration.

The challenge is not to appoint better officials but to think about why our political and constitutional arrangements no longer convey a sense of minimal obligations for official conduct. The problem is finally not with officials but with the political system that empowers them and then fails to hold them responsible. So it’s not just commercial freedom that’s at stake. We’re losing respect for our whole constitutional system.