The Ruling Ties That Bind

Editor’s note: This is the second post of a two part series on the NSA surveillance program.

By a bipartisan vote of 217 to 205 the House of Representatives refused to cut back on the government’s collection of electronic data on all Americans. The media’s spin, that both parties’ moderates had joined narrowly to defeat their own extremists, mistakes a remarkable reality. First, the people’s representatives voted against the majority of the American people’s sentiments – again. Second, they voted according to their connection with the ruling class rather than because of any extremism or moderation.

Having spent eight years as a senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence committee, I offer the following observations:

The polls leave no doubt how unpopular is the NSA’s collection of metadata on Americans’ phone calls, and on the substance of computer communications: Three fifths disapprove specifically. Only one fourth approve. But the leaders of both political parties, united against popular sentiment that cuts across party lines, chose to represent the Executive branch of government and those who depend upon it in opposition to their own voters. They have done this habitually since passing the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the prototype of the US government’s current behavior. Thus these Republicans and Democrats constitute themselves as a single party, representatives of the government and of the class that runs it.

As Tories, supporters of the Crown, this Party of Court Republicans and Democrats dismiss the concerns of the country that lies beyond the gates of power. In the case of NSA surveillance, as in others, their basis for doing so has far less to do with conviction about the substance of the matter at controversy than with whom they represent. It seems that the congressmen who voted to uphold NSA’s surveillance received twice as much money from defense industry sources as those who voted against it. This is less likely to be a cause for votes to sustain it as it is evidence of deeper, more interesting relationships.

Consider that the campaign to maintain the NSA spying was led by members of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees. Such members are well placed to understand the programs under their purview. Why they seldom understand them is worth our attention and offers insight into why, in general, the closer that legislators are to the programs they oversee the less likely they are to hold them accountable.

Few congressmen or senators have the time and interest to gain more than superficial knowledge of their bailiwicks. Few delve beneath the shameless dog-and-pony propaganda that the bureaucrats present at hearings, by which they seek to form the Members’ minds. Unless the bureaucrats are forcefully dissuaded from doing so, they invariably overestimate the value of what they are doing as well as hide costs and inconveniences thereof. Why? Their jobs, promotions, and prestige are at stake. Moreover, each program involves hundreds of millions, usually billions, of dollars of contracts. As a matter of course, officials of the intelligence agencies as well as military officers can expect lucrative jobs with these contractors. Next to such considerations, the national interest looms small. For a congressman or a senator, going against the bureaucracies’ grain is even harder socially than it is demanding intellectually. Besides, doing so requires unusual staff help.

Congressmen, and especially senators given their more numerous committee assignments, necessarily conduct oversight of Federal programs primarily through staff. These, the luxury of sufficient time to focus on their jobs notwithstanding, are even more liable to be captured by the bureaucracies than are Members. Young, insecure, and ambitious, working as they do precariously on a day-to-day basis for Members most of whom don’t want trouble, they almost always try to stay on the good side of the bureaucrats they oversee. Very few have the intellectual self confidence to form and defend points of view at variance from those of the Founts Of Authority in the Executive branch. How can the staffer expect to fare when these Founts accuse him of error or worse to his employer? Why should the staffer risk getting fired? Few if any have better places to land. Getting along with the bureaucracies and with their contractors means opening doors to career options. Why risk closing them?

This is the practical meaning of “ruling class.” This is why, whether regarding ethanol subsidies, domestic spying, or missile defense, the pretended expertise, entrenched interest, and socio-political networks that bind the ruling class together usually overcome massive-but-unfocused popular sentiment.