September 27, 2005

The New Monarchy

Earlier today in the office, I was joking with one of the interns that someone ought to write a contrarian defense of patronage and cronyism. But after reading Time's latest cover story on the ways in which President Bush has stocked the federal agencies with his assorted cronies (and his cronies' cronies), it's clear that this isn't really a laughing matter. Here's the nut of it:
The Office of Personnel Management's Plum Book, published at the start of each presidential Administration, shows that there are more than 3,000 positions a President can fill without consideration for civil service rules. And Bush has gone further than most Presidents to put political stalwarts in some of the most important government jobs you've never heard of, and to give them genuine power over the bureaucracy. "These folks are really good at using the instruments of government to promote the President's political agenda," says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and a well-known expert on the machinery of government. "And I think that takes you well into the gray zone where few Presidents have dared to go in the past. It's the coordination and centralization that's important here."
American democracy, it would appear, has become a form of monarchy, in which cloying courtiers line up, preen and primp in front of the king, and hope for some blessed bit of favoritism handed down from on high. It's clear, mind you, that we're not seeing anything like the Jacksonian spoils system of the 19th century, in which, after each presidential election, tens of thousands of cronies would descend on Washington hoping that the new president would give them a plum sinecure in some federal agency or other. That racket pretty much ended in 1881, after James A. Garfield was shot by a spurned office-seeker, and Congress passed the Civil Service Act two years later.

But even today the president—already an absurdly powerful position in this country; too powerful in my opinion—still gets to appoint a ridiculous number of federal jobs. 3,000 all told. What purpose, pray tell, does it serve to allow the president to choose the 57 Inspector General positions? As we've seen with various IGs over the past four years, the opportunities for abuse here are endless. Of course, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney see a purpose. These appointments allow them to reward business allies and political associates. But even more importantly—and this, I think, distinguishes this administration from previous ones—the new spoils system helps them fill the federal government with pliant officials who won't act independently. As Paul Light puts it, "coordination and centralization." And Bush, as his recent proposals make clear, wants to go even further in this direction, with reforms that would give his patronage appointments greater flexibility in reshaping the lower ranks of the civil service.

Bureaucracy, as anyone can agree, has its disadvantages. It can be slow, cumbersome, hidebound, inefficient, pick your adjective. Many libertarians and small-government types—at least those theoretical purists free from the burden of actually having to run things—hate bureaucracies for just this reason. (Occasionally privatization can help to fix these problems; in practice it often just adds further levels of inefficiency and corruption.) Nevertheless, a series of agencies filled with career civil servants brings with it certain advantages: you have a bunch of middle-class, educated and professional individuals generally working with a broad conception of the public interest in mind. As Michael Lind might say, these are the meritocratic mandarins of our time.

The modern-day spoils system, Bush-style, turns that conception on its head. Many of the technocrats who vie, like courtiers, for presidential appointments these days now generally spend their exile years, when their party is out of power, working in partisan-hack think tanks, like Heritage or the Center for American Progress, spending their time thinking not about the public interest but about fighting political warfare via clownish policy papers, trying to accentuate their differences from the opposition. These are the people who end up getting bureaucratic jobs—just look at the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, filled with Heritage apparatchiks and hotshot young political operatives rather than with the public servants who actually spend all their time thinking about the drudgery of nation-building and building sewage treatment plants and the like. The end result was a disaster.

To be clear, there's absolutely no a priori reason why a Democratic president would do any better—the problem is, in many ways, systemic. On the other hand, the modern GOP harbors a special bias against bureaucracy. To be clear, Republicans certainly don't hate big government—why should they, when it provides billions of dollars worth of favors to dispense? They do, however, tend to assume that civil servants are all very liberal, and hostile to their own interests. In 1995, the Gingrich Republicans dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment, a very effective agency staffed by highly competent people that helped disseminate useful scientific information to Congress and the public, in order to inform policy debates. The problem, however, was that OTA put out two major studies in the 1980s unfriendly to Reagan's Star Wars project, and the GOP became convinced that the place was a leftist operation. As Chris Mooney recently reported, Republicans are sort of regretting the move nowadays, but they're still afraid that a rebuilt OTA would be staffed with "liberal" scientists who produce "skewed" analysis.

The Bush administration has taken up a similar stance, especially after meeting hefty civil servant opposition in, among other places, the CIA and State Department. Like characters in a Thomas Pynchon novel, Bush Republicans are deeply paranoid about bureaucracy, though it's mostly a partisan paranoia. Yet the civil servants who so irk conservatives—Richard Clarke, say, or Eric Shinseki—have very much stood athwart a presidency backed only by a war-crazed public and yelled 'stop'. Any conservative suspicious of popular rule, as Burke was, would do well to consider the crucial role that career civil service officers can play in checking a president empowered by the masses.

I understand the reasons in favor of some form of patronage. It gives highly-qualified people a real incentive to slog it out for presidential candidates and work for their parties in the hopes that some sort of cushy federal job will be the end reward. That's important. It's also a way to keep unelected agencies accountable. And, in those times when some hidebound federal agency really does need a shakeup, a smart president can wield his power of appointment to change things for the better, as Bill Clinton did for FEMA. But it's equally clear that the broad leeway a president gets to choose his own "entourage" is rife with danger. (And lest conservatives think I'm saying all this out of Bush-hatred, ask yourself, "What if Hillary got to select 3,000 of her finest cronies—to pursue 'coordination and centralization'?") Perhaps it's time to rethink civil-service reform. Independent bureaucracy, rather than the Kafkaesque monster that devours democracy, may well be an important defense against tyranny and corruption.
-- Brad Plumer 3:20 AM || ||