Thursday, January 17, 2008

Inside-the-Beltway Battle

One flashpoint between conservative and liberal governance may be all but invisible outside Washington--the end-game of essentially eternal government employees stalling, and occasionally overriding, policies for which the electorate voted. From here in D.C., many seem to believe bureaucrats and science trump popular sovereignty. It shouldn't be so.

But first, some numbers. About 2.7 million civilians work for the Federal government. Of those, just under 2 million are employed in the Executive Branch, headed by the President. See U.S. Const., Art. II, Sec. 2, cl. 1. Nationwide, over 85 percent of Federal employees are "full-time permanent." About one-eighth of the workforce -- approximately 336,000 -- live and work in the Washington-Baltimore region.

Some of those D.C. government jobs are ephemeral. For example, Congressmen and their staffs, tenure tied to next November. Also Cabinet officials and other "political" appointees -- such as Assistant U.S. Attorneys -- whose positions are listed, and lusted for, in the quadrennial "Plum Book" of government policy and supporting positions. That's about 7,000 positions.

Most of the remaining inside-the-beltway Federal civilian positions are filled by an essentially permanent bureaucracy, subject to civil service protections. Elections come, elections go, but Federal workers in the "General Schedule" (GS-1 through GS-15) last forever, or at least well beyond the next change in Administrations.

Who are these people? I once was one (at the Commerce Department in Reagan's first term). Then, and now, most are intelligent and dedicated. Still, twenty-five years ago as well as today, my experience is that government workers are preponderantly liberal. I know this is a generalization, but -- in the abstract -- within the scope of responsibilities of the Executive Branch, liberals typically favor active and interventionist government. When combined with a natural tendency to want to keep -- and keep important -- one's job, Executive Branch civil servants tend to be biased toward regulation--and stasis. That means subverting the political appointees chosen by the President to implement the policies preferred by voters. It means preferring a cadre of paternalistic bureaucrats (backed by the state-power compulsion) to the people's choices.

This struggle is rarely reported in those terms. Instead, lefties complain conservatives are subverting science. So it's usually painted as a battle for bureaucratic or scientific independence, such as the Latin-laden account in Wednesday's Washington Post:
Two dozen scientists swarmed over Capitol Hill this week mad as vespinae (hornets) at what they say is Bush administration meddling in environmental science.

Organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Endangered Species Coalition, the rumpled researchers won time in the offices of more than 20 lawmakers. They are protesting what Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, calls "the systematic dismantling of the Endangered Species Act through the manipulation and suppression of science."

On a dash from the House to the Senate, Grifo said the group wants hearings and better congressional oversight of the Interior Department, where Bush appointees control the fate of threatened and endangered species.

The scientists say political appointees at Interior, or those who report to them, have been altering their reports recommending "critical habitat" preservation to favor industries whose interests conflict with the findings.

They singled out decisions by Julie A. MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. She was criticized last year by Interior's inspector general for repeatedly instructing scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change recommendations on safeguarding plants and animals from oil and gas drilling, power lines, and real estate development.
A better-known instance was the mainstream media coronation of NASA's James Hanson, who was lionized as a truth-seeking whistle-blower for disagreeing with the Administration's policy on climate change. Whatever the instance, the media's replete with complaints that Bush "puts political ideology over science." It's even been elevated to a campaign issue--Senator Clinton vows her Administration will shield science from politics.

Critics have it completely backwards. Government is about policymaking. And while science and data gathering may be "independent" in some sense, policy is not, as Reason's Ronald Bailey observed:
[A] word of unsolicited advice to scientists who want to play in the public policy arena. Facts by themselves do not immediately entail the adoption of particular policies. Many of the scientific "facts" cited by activists arise from contested epidemiological data and controversial computer models. For example, if humanity is significantly warming the planet, it is entirely possible that the best policy is to encourage rapid technological progress and economic growth so that any problems caused by such warming can be dealt with more effectively and fairly in the future. And how does one make the trade-off between possibly harming a few species of birds through the use of DDT, and using the insecticide to prevent the deaths of millions of people each year from malaria? These are political decisions. Suggestive scientific data certainly help guide our decisions, but they do not mandate any particular policies—not even those championed by the most brilliant researchers.
On global warming in particular, though it's important to investigate whether the earth is warming, if so, why and whether the change is caused by, and could be affected by, CO2 emissions, three "yes" answers don't end the argument. Rather, it may be that adaptation or amelioration is a better -- cheaper and more protective of life -- than cutting greenhouse gasses. Though I've made the mistake as well, it simply isn't the case that science settles the question--if their populations truly are declining, "preferring pipelines to polar bears" isn't necessarily irrational.

Bush's failure to account for bureaucratic brush wars have greatly limited his achievements. Much of the intelligence community is hostile to the President's foreign policy goals, and repeatedly says so in the press. Same at the State Department. Bush was more successful regarding stem cells--early in his Administration, he considered scientific fact along with policy and morality, compromising to permit the research while withholding Federal funding.

Next time, says Jonathan Adler on The Corner, right-of-center policymakers should prepare:
I also think conservatives should pay attention to how they believe respective presidential candidates would deal with the vast federal bureaucracy, large portions of which are staffed with civil servants who are hostile to a conservative governing agenda. Transforming government requires more than being able to give a good speech and make sound policy decisions. It also requires recognizing that appointments matter ("people are policy"), and that process matters.

Consider that one thing that has hampered the Bush Administration's effectiveness is its preference for "loyalists" over those with professional and ideological qualifications. This has resulted in many situations in which political appointees have been over their head, and been unable to manage the bureaucracy in line with the Administration's stated policy goals.
Conclusion: Every four years, Americans select a President and Vice President--and the policies they stand for. In the Executive Branch, the plum-colored politicals are in charge and -- so long as they act consistent with the Constitution, the U.S. Code and the code of Federal Regulations -- should be free to implement the agenda they were designated to pursue. Though Washington's 300 thousand civil servants outnumber elected officials and their political appointees, the mantle of popular sovereignty falls on the few as representatives of the many, bureaucrats included.


Anonymous said...

Carl, amen. And this is a feature of contemporary governance that deserves far more thinktank and policy wonk scrutiny than it has yet been given.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the polar bear question, do a search on "bear" in the December archives of Greenie Watch. Apparently, there are 13 groups of polar bears, 11 of which have been on the increase. The alarmists are, of course, taking a single group and putting it forth as representative of a whole population in a typically disingenuous way. Are you surprised? Why am I not?

@nooil4pacifists said...


I'm not surprised--because I read it in Lomborg.