Because I’ve pontificated lately about elites and the will of the people, I thought it might be useful to examine a specific example of both: the case of the federal bureaucracy. Here is a large and active body of workers, supposedly serving the people, whose organizational impulses in fact collide with the most basic requirements of democracy.
I’m not talking about special interests, though I acknowledge their power in shaping the federal government. Nor is my concern with conspiracy theories, the “military-industrial complex,” or a sinister “iron triangle.” I have good reason to believe that civil servants in most federal agencies are honest, hard-working, and dedicated to their mission.
The problem lies in the fundamental drivers of bureaucratic behavior.
After the elimination of the spoils system, the federal workforce was reconstituted on the Platonic guardian model: disinterested, nonpartisan, nonideological. The only consideration was to be the welfare of the American people, as defined by the laws and policies put in place by their elected officials.
The ban on overt partisanship had a paradoxical effect: it made the federal bureaucracy self-serving. Civil servants didn’t work for a president or a party, but for a higher mission. Predictable group dynamics kicked in at this point.
To serve the welfare of the American people in a pure, nonpartisan fashion, the bureaucracy could plausibly demand more freedom, funding, and prestige. Legal and policy mandates became, as if by magic, subject to administrative discretion. Today, the link between Congressional legislation and an actual citizen being qualified for welfare or allowed to keep a bottle of fluids at an airport is tenuous to nil.
In even the simplest and clearest law, the bureaucracy can find ambiguities, complexities, doubts. Federal legislation is enacted democratically, but much of what is enforced is commentary to the law: judicial and administrative interpretations, judgments, decisions, arrived at by a guardian class, top-down.
To the extent that it is self-interested, the federal bureaucracy seeks to enhance its power and status. To the extent that it follows a Platonic ideal, it seeks to liberate itself from politicians and extend its reach into people’s lives. The consequence of these reinforcing motivations is an angelic vision of vast but nonpolitical authority, exercised with absolute personal-institutional discretion. It is a rare government worker who is an advocate of limited government.
Of course, in practice these maneuvers entail the rejection of Platonic purity and political nonpartisanship. The federal bureaucracy, as an institution, promotes a specific ideology: what Thomas Sowell called the “unconstrained vision” of rationalized, carefully planned human progress. However uneasily, bureaucrats must therefore embrace political forces willing to grow the government – forming dangerous liaisons with the media, most of the Democratic Party, and the paternalistic wing of the Republican Party.
All branches of the federal government have abetted the bureaucracy’s ambitions. The motive might be moral cowardice or intellectual laziness, or both, on the part of elected officials. Anyone who owns a slice of power, in any case, isn’t likely to be troubled by the removal of difficult issues from the domain of contested politics to that of administration.
Congress, the worst offender, treats legislation as a publicity stunt or medical marijuana for constituents. Laws roll down from Capitol Hill in mind-boggling numbers and poundage: local minutia gets glommed onto vague cosmic intent, meaningless buzzwords circumscribe huge costly projects, incoherence rides on contradiction – all of which gets thrown over the transom at the executive and ultimately the federal bureaucracy.
Sitting presidents are of course always willing to extend their influence. They usually demand the monstrous bills spawned by Congress. But presidential attention focuses narrowly on garnering bumper-sticker achievements – “Patriot Act,” “Health care reform” – and wanes quickly thereafter, “delegating” the dirty work of implementation to the bureaucrats.
Meanwhile, the judiciary, which least represents the will of the people, have become virtual lawmakers, dictating mandates from the bench which often require the bureaucracy’s intervention.
The health care bill passed in March is a good example of all these perversions of the democratic process. President Obama demanded action on a bumper-sticker issue. Congress delivered two cubic feet of text. Enactment was hailed as a “historic victory” for the President, yet nobody in either the legislative or the executive had any idea what the verbiage meant. No matter: the law is headed for the courts, where it will generate still more purple prose. At the end of a long, opaque exercise, only lawyers and bureaucrats will profit.
When the law becomes a mystery, democracy decays to an empty ritual. The fault lies less in the bureaucracy, which acts according to its own implacable dynamics, than in the electorate – in us – for raising to high office a craven political class. The solution is simple in theory, but dauntingly difficult to accomplish.
We must elect senators and representatives willing to be judged by their legislation – and by their discretion. We must hold Congress responsible for enacting clearer laws, shorter laws, fewer laws.
At the moment, the federal bureaucracy stands starkly exposed as a privileged elite – not, as one might expect, because of its political usurpations, but because of its economic prosperity during a recession which has left so many Americans unemployed. Public outrage is sure to follow. Most likely, President Obama and his successors will be forced to cut back on salaries, benefits, even the size of the workforce.
Such measures are perfectly reasonable, but won’t touch the larger problem. The conflict between the federal bureaucracy and the democratic process is structural, and can only be resolved when the most difficult questions of public concern are settled by political rather than administrative authorities.
UPDATE: I don’t know if it’s something in the air, but Charles Krauthammer wrote today on this – I thought – rather obscure subject. Quote:
Last week, a draft memo surfaced from the Department of Homeland Security suggesting ways to administratively circumvent existing law to allow several categories of illegal immigrants to avoid deportation and, indeed, for some to be granted permanent residency. Most disturbing was the stated rationale. This was being proposed “in the absence of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” In other words, because Congress refuses to do what these bureaucrats would like to see done, they will legislate it themselves.
Regardless of your feelings on the substance of the immigration issue, this is not how a constitutional democracy should operate. Administrators administer the law, they don’t change it. That’s the legislators’ job.
As they say: read the whole thing.