Government Of, By, and For the Bureaucracy

Even the President can't stop 'em.

We've pointed out that the Civil Service Act of 1883 made it effectively impossible to fire any government employee, no matter how incompetent, unless they're actually convicted of a crime; mere moral turpitude is insufficient.  Once past the probation period, the only way a manager can get rid of a subordinate is to shove him or her off to another department.

Before the Civil Service Act was passed, the President appointed every federal employee.  Andrew Jackson, the President who started this tradition in 1829, stated that he had been given a mandate to carry out his policies.  The only way he could ensure that his policies would be carried out, he said, would be to personally oversee the selection of every federal employee.

That way, if someone didn't do what Mr. Jackson wanted, the miscreant had no beef when the President fired him for insubordination, which is exactly what Jackson proceeded to do.  As a result, Jackson's administration did an excellent job of furthering his agenda, which was either good or bad depending on your point of view.

This power of appointment was a two-edged sword.  President Grant was famous for making unfortunate appointments.  His appointees were so corrupt that voters became disgusted with the appointments system; the fury reached fever pitch by the time President Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, who was angry at Garfield because Guiteau had been denied a government job.  Public revulsion at past corruption coupled with indignation at the assassination led to the passage of the Civil Service Act.

The new law took away the President's power to appoint government employees except the very top, whom the President appointed with "the advice and consent of the Senate."  Lesser functionaries would be hired by the Civil Service Commission which would administer exams and make sure that the best qualified people were put in each job, at least in theory.

The former system had been good politics - anyone who helped a President win an election was pretty much guaranteed a plum government job - but it was also good management.

Put aside considerations of incompetence for the moment and consider obedience versus insubordination.  Can you imagine General Motors, say, being able to operate effectively if the boss couldn't fire employees who wouldn't do what they were told?  Suppose a GM plant manager decided he'd rather manufacture hybrids than Hummers - or vice versa - and started converting his plant without permission.  How long would he survive as plant manager?

The President of the United States has no such power over the Federal bureaucracy.  Suppose he disagrees with the justice department employees in LA bringing criminal charges for violating a web site license agreement.  What can he do about it?

In theory, the President can fire the top US Attorney in each district, but he can't touch individual lawyers further down the line.  Even if the President is convinced that violating a web site license should not be treated as a criminal offense, there's nothing he can do about it except pontificate - but that only makes him look weak and ineffectual.

The civil service act effectively makes each government bureau a law unto itself.  How often have we seen articles pointing out that we can't improve our education system unless we change the system so that we can get rid of the incompetent teachers whose jobs are protected by union contracts?  The exact same thing is true of every one of our many federal bureaucracies.

Our Energy Policy Vacuum

Ever since the first energy crisis, editorial writers and politicians have bemoaned the fact that the US has no coherent energy policy.  What they don't understand is that there is no mechanism by which our society can decide on and implement any policy that the bureaucrats don't like.

How many times have we seen the CIA intentionally playing games with intelligence to try to make George Bush look foolish because they don't agree with him?  The opposition of the State Department bureaucrats to everything Mr. Bush tries to do is legendary.  The most Mr. Bush can do is replace the Secretary of State or the Director of the CIA; he can't reach down into the cubicle farm and throw his problem children out the door.  President Lincoln would probably not have been able to win the Civil War if he'd had as little control of the Federal bureaucracy as Mr. Bush has.

We see bureaucratic immunity from accountability being played out in our incoherent energy policy.  The article "Administration Releases EPA Report, Then Repudiates It" on page A2 of the July 12-13 Wall Street Journal begins:

The Bush Administration published a government blueprint to reduce U.S. output of global-warming gases, but at the same time rejected the document out of hand - saying it relied on "untested legal theories" and would impose "crippling costs on the US economy." [emphasis added]

The White House argues [that] the Environmental Protection Agency must not be allowed to regulate green house gas emissions, for fear it would be able to block development across the country.

The Journal writers give a false impression in saying "The Bush Administration published..." because Mr. Bush wants nothing to do with the document which the EPA bureaucracy has created.

EPA bureaucrats would love to extend their power, turf, and budget to be able to regulate carbon emissions.  As we've pointed out, all human activity including breathing emits carbon; the power to regulate carbon emissions is the power to regulate everything without exception.  This sort of power would be bureaucratic nirvana; it's no surprise that the bureaucrats would try to ride the wave of the global warming scam to a bigger budget.

The Journal writers hinted at what's going on:

The nearly 1000-page EPA document was written in response to a Supreme Court order: The court instructed the agency to decide whether greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and welfare.  Instead, the final document took no position on the court's question - yet escalated the extraordinary battle between the agency and the White House.

The White House rejected an earlier draft that did find a danger to welfare, which would trigger application of the strict rules of the Clean Air Act to regulating greenhouse gases... The EPA's document represents the denouement of a long simmering conflict between the EPA's career staff and the White House...[emphasis added]

In a letter accompanying the EPA document, Susan Dudley, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, bluntly disavowed the EPA's analysis, saying it relied on "untested legal theories" and "cannot be considered Administration policy or representative of the views of the Administration."

Parenthetically, the fact the Supreme Court had to ask the EPA to decide whether greenhouse gases are a danger to public welfare suggests that the Clean Air Act under which the EPA operates isn't quite as clear or clean as it ought to be.

Our Supreme Count seems to have no trouble making up laws when they want to, the fact that they had to ask the EPA for clarification of this one means it's probably written so poorly that not even a Supreme Court justice can figure out what it means.  That's not the fault of the bureaucracy, that's the fault of our elected representatives who pass incoherent, incomprehensible laws, but that's another series of articles.

Government Of the Bureaucracy, By the Bureaucracy, and For the Bureaucracy

Think about what the White House said about the EPA's document for a moment.  The President is elected by the voters to run the country.  We give him all kinds of perks including a "bully pulpit" and expect him to get on with the job.  Yet, when the EPA "career staff" releases a document in response to a Supreme Court order, the President's staff says that the document "cannot be considered Administration policy or representative of the views of the Administration."

What's going on?  Can anyone imagine the Engineering Department at Ford Motor Company releasing a document and then the Chairman's office saying that the views of the Engineering Department did not represent the views of Ford Motor Company?  What would happen to any Ford employee who released an official document that didn't represent the views of Ford Motor Company?

The Journal quoted a reaction to the EPA report:

"This is a classic example of the EPA staff saying we can better manage the economy of the United States better than the President," said William Kovacs, vice-president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

With all due respect to Mr. Kovacs, he doesn't understand what's going on.  The "career staff" aren't trying to manage the US economy.  They don't give a fig for the economy.  They're simply trying to expand the reach of the law they administer.

The EPA knows that nobody deals with them voluntarily; businesses deal with the EPA only when they have to.  The only way to get more businesses to deal with them so that they can hire more people and have a bigger budget is to expand the scope and reach of the Clean Air Act so that a bigger portion of the economy has to deal with them.

Why doesn't Mr. Bush fire the bureaucrats who won't carry out his policies?  Because he can't.  All he can do is argue with them in public.

We'll never have a coherent energy policy or a coherent immigration policy or a coherent policy on terrorism because too many uncontrollable bureaucracies have been loosed in our land.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...