Tilting at Windmills

By Charles Peters

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Washington at its best I

For those of us who came to Washington with John Kennedy, January was a time for both mourning and celebration. On the 20th, a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his inaugural speech was held in the Capitol rotunda. Congressional leaders spoke about how the challenge of “ask not” had affected them. I was struck by the fact that people whose speeches had rarely been notable for the emotion they aroused—people like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry—actually became quite moving when they described how they had been inspired by those words.


Washington at its best II

On the 22nd I attended Sargent Shriver’s funeral at a small Catholic church in Potomac, Maryland. Once again I was struck by the genuine emotion of the speakers as they praised the contagious enthusiasm Sarge brought to every task he undertook, and how the tasks he chose unfailingly involved service to his country, his church, and his fellow man. Bill Clinton summed it up: “He couldn’t have been that good—but he was.”


Washington at its worst

On the 24th, Angela Novello’s funeral was held in the chapel of the retirement home where she had lived outside of Silver Spring. Angie had been Robert Kennedy’s secretary before and during his service as attorney general and as senator. We had become acquainted during the 1960 campaign, and when I came to Washington the next year, it turned out we lived on the same floor of the same apartment building. And so began a lasting friendship.

During the seven years when Robert Kennedy was one of the most powerful men in the country, you would have thought that the number of Angie’s close friends had to be in the hundreds. Lobbyists, politicians, and reporters would all describe her as one of their pals: “Angie always takes my calls, and she usually puts me through to Bobby right away.”

But none of these close pals showed up at the funeral. Aside from her retirement home friends and her wonderful Italian family, originally from Calabria, I seemed to be the only male there. Women were a bit better represented. There were seven, including Ethel Kennedy and her daughters Kerry and Courtney. Still, when you remember the legions of pals she had in the ’60s, you realize just how cruel Washington can be. The Washington Post didn’t even deem her worthy of an obituary. Angie had a warmer heart and more common sense than most of us will ever possess. She deserved better at the end.


The ugly truth in twenty-one words

Earlier this year, I collected a series of headlines from the Wall Street Journal that tell the story of the economy in miniature: “Corporate Profits Are Up Like Gangbusters”; “On [Wall] Street, Pay Vaults to Record Altitude”; “Downturn’s Ugly Trademark: Lasting Drop in Wages.”


The man could lead

Sargent Shriver stands alone among government administrators I have observed in his determination to find out what his agency was doing wrong and to fix it. My job at the Peace Corps was to make sure he knew that bad news, even when it involved criticism of his own actions.

Shriver was also a great leader in other crucial respects. He inspired high enthusiasm and enormous effort from his subordinates. He also devoted careful attention to selecting them. He spent more time interviewing potential staff members than any other agency head that I’m aware of. And the selection of Peace Corps volunteers was done with such care, that despite the extremely daunting challenges that many of them faced—including the threat of deadly diseases, primitive living conditions, and having to create their own jobs—a lower percentage of volunteers quit before their term was over than under any future leader.


Don’t stick around

Shriver also understood that over time even good people can lose their dedication and become more concerned with promotions and benefits than with the agency’s mission. So he persuaded congress to put a five-year limit on Peace Corps employment. That limit is probably too tight, but Shriver was prescient in seeing the danger of tenure. It’s odd how an increasing number of people are becoming aware of the danger of tenure for public school teachers but unaware that the same danger exists for all public servants. That danger needs to be faced if we are to have better government. The truth is that, as things stand now, we have far too many civil servants who “work to the rule” and get excited only about issues involving pay and benefits.


The bakery-industrial complex

Veteran readers may recall we once had a feature called “Memo of the Month.” Its purpose was to publicize enough examples of bureaucratic prose to bring about reform in the language of government, especially in making it more concise. That we met with less than complete success in that mission is suggested by a memo that recently came my way. It is Military Specification MIC C 440 726C W W/Change. Its subject is “Cookies, Oatmeal; and Brownies, Chocolate Covered.” It is nineteen pages long.


Around the world in eighty beignets

Since Julia Child introduced us to French cuisine, food has gradually become very close to a national obsession. Hour upon hour of television time is now devoted to cooking and eating. Even the channels supposedly concerned with other matters, like travel, share the obsession. How do they manage to relate food to travel? By making the preparation and consumption take place in different cities and countries. It reminds me of the time when poker was the rage, leading the sports channel ESPN to justify its poker show by calling it The World Series of Poker. And the Travel Channel got into the act with the World Poker Tour. Travel has gotten so carried away with its new passion that its show 101 Tastiest Places to Chowdown actually seems to endorse gluttony.


We lost you at “bureaucracy”

I was delighted to read the Washington Post article on Barack Obama’s proposal to reorganize government agencies. Written by Karen Tumulty and Ed O’Keefe, it is a sophisticated account of the peril awaiting attempts to re-arrange bureaucracies. The fact that the Post article is exceptional, however, reminds me of another failed mission of the Monthly.

Our original purpose was to improve understanding of the way the institutions of Washington really worked. Though we have enjoyed considerable success with respect to lobbyists, the media, and the White House, we have by and large failed in our efforts to improve understanding of bureaucracy, perhaps because the subject makes most eyes glaze over. But I pray the reader’s indulgence in resisting the glaze for the rest of this column.


Stayin’ Alive

If there is one truth about bureaucratic culture that I am most desperate to get across, it concerns the survival imperative. Especially as government organizations mature, dedication to the performance of mission tends to be replaced by dedication to the survival of the official and of his agency. This means that protection of the agency’s budget becomes paramount. Otherwise the jobs of its officials are threatened. Next most important is growth of the budget, because it will increase opportunities for promotion.

The best way to avoid budget cuts is not to anger the groups that can make trouble for the agency with the congressional appropriations committee. Too often these groups are the mining, drilling, airline, and drug companies and the military contractors that the agency is supposed to oversee. And too often the public interest is not represented by equally strong voices. This, not the corruption that the media looks for, is the main reason that the agencies fail. Recent examples include the FAA’s long failure to crack down on the safety procedures of the regional airlines, the Minerals Management Service’s failure with British Petroleum, the mine safety agency’s failure to get Masseyto improve its safety practice in time to prevent the Sago disaster, and the SEC and Federal Reserve’s failure to prevent the Wall Street meltdown.


Misguidance

If the press mistakenly looks for corruption—or scandal, as with the SEC staffers who watched porn on the job—as the main cause of bad government performance, the White House and Congress are equally guilty of providing inadequate oversight of that performance. Congressmen, of course, are the ones pressed by the lobbyists to influence the agencies in the wrong way. They also tend to be so unaware of the inner workings of the agencies that they ask the wrong questions at hearings.


The patient exhibits a diminished executive function

As for the White House, it tends to be preoccupied with its own pet programs and attends to agencies not involved in these programs only when they attract headlines, which usually only happens after a Katrina or a Gulf oil spill.

This is why I endorse the recommendation that John Gravois is making in this issue that the size of the OMB be doubled. By giving the woefully understaffed OMB enough high-quality personnel to really monitor other agencies’ performance of their missions, Obama can not only protect himself and the country from future disasters but also make it possible for him to make the intelligent cuts in government spending that will not adversely affect the performance of essential functions.


If you’ve got the success stories, I’ve got the time

The tendency of most White Houses has been to cross their fingers and pray that nothing blows up on their watch. The question about Obama is whether he really wants to know what’s going on down below. When White Houses communicate with the agencies they are supposed to supervise, the most common purpose is to ask for good news that can be used by the president in the State of the Union speech and other messages.

I am convinced that White House pressure for good news was the main reason for the Challenger disaster. NASA officials were so desperate for Ronald Reagan to be able to boast about the first teacher in space in his State of the Union message scheduled for the night of the launch that they rejected—and indeed sought to suppress—warnings from Thiokol engineers about the dangers of launching in freezing temperatures.


And now for a political message from our sponsors

Have you noticed how the right wing is getting its message across through what used to be the relatively apolitical realm of corporate advertising? Consider the message of an ad from a group called Americans Against Food Taxes, which I gather is supported by the soft drink companies. The ad concludes, “The government is just getting too involved in our personal lives.” And then there is the worshipful celebration of Ronald Reagan in General Electric’s extensive television and print ad campaign on the occasion of his centennial, which seems to offer an unqualified endorsement of his presidency. Ronald Reagan was a nice man who inspired optimism. Otherwise, it seems to me that his presidency is only memorable—at least in good ways—for “Tear down this wall,” which was glorious, and the genuinely moving speech Reagan made at Omaha Beach in 1984.


Corruption, illegal and legal

When I suggested earlier in this column that corruption was not a major problem within the federal government, I did not mean it never happens. Any time a purchasing function exists, as it does notably at the General Services Administration, which buys everything from buildings to furniture for the rest of the federal government, there is going to be a strong temptation toward outright bribe taking. More common, however, is the selling out that occurs among senators, congressmen, and congressional staff in the hope of future employment by lobbyists or the industries they represent. This is also a significant problem at the Pentagon, where both military officers and civil servants are tempted to be excessively kind to contractors who might provide them with cushy jobs.


With a little help from their friends

Speaking of selling out, I invite your attention to a recent headline in the business section of the New York Times: “GOP Asks Businesses Which Rules to Rewrite.”


But the lung cancer is minty fresh

If you had any doubt that the tobacco companies are not among the good guys, consider how Lorillard is resisting a government ban on the menthol additive in cigarettes that is so heavily marketed to blacks and adolescents. David Kesmodel of the Wall Street Journal reports that Lorillard, which makes Newport, is “buying up a host of menthol-bashing internet domain names including MentholKillsMinorities.com, MentholAddictsYouth.com and FDAMustBanMenthol.com.”

The significance of this action is that it deprives advocates of the ban from having easy-to-find-and-remember places on the Internet from which to make their voices heard.


Bad news from Appalachia

Now for three stories from one of my favorite sources, the Charleston Gazette. One series describes how in West Virginia state and local police cover up misdeeds, including dangerous beatings. Another tells how Marshall University’s cover-up of the rape of a female student led to the rapist escaping punishment. Finally, an article by Ken Ward Jr., whose coverage of the coal industry has been so consistently outstanding, reports the death from cancer of Judy Bonds, who had fought the mountaintop removal that’s destroying or seriously damaging the environment in huge chunks of the state. Judy was not some outside do-gooder but a native West Virginian who had grown up in the hollows and worked as a waitress and as the manager of a Pizza Hut. She had to endure the anger of friends and neighbors who saw her as a threat to their jobs in the mining industry.


Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

It’s tough to take stands like that in West Virginia. When Jay Rockefeller first ran for governor, he campaigned against strip mining, the precursor of mountaintop removal, and was soundly defeated. So it’s understandable that mountaintop removal is an issue that state leaders will not tackle. Similar problems exist with many other industries. The chemical industry has spent most of the last century threatening the people of West Virginia with a choice between the perils to their health from dangerous chemicals on the one hand, and the risk of losing their jobs on the other. Recently Bayer CropScience told the Gazette that it would “stop making, using, and storing the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate” at its plant near Charleston. But the company also said that the move will cost the jobs of 220 local residents.

One of the great tragedies of this country is that similar problems exist in almost every other state. Military contractors, for example, have been clever enough to spread their work out over several state and congressional districts, especially those of the congressional committees that affect defense, so that politicians have a stake in their prosperity. This of course means that state officials, including the congressional delegation, are unwilling to oppose expenditures for whatever weapon is being made locally without regard to whether it is dangerous or useless.


Commodity calamity

Here’s another reason why I recommend John Gravois’s article on the danger of understaffed agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, again according to the Journal, is “trying to swallow a huge expansion in its workload, without an accompanying boost in its budget.” Why should you care? The CFTC is all that stands between you and dangerous derivatives, as well as the speculators that drive up everything from corn to coffee to oil.


Hoosier hero, Tea Party zero

The only at-all-prominent Republican leader who seems to acknowledge the importance of regulation is Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana. As former head of the OMB, he also understands the value of performance—of how to make the trains of government run on time. But I fear the Tea Partiers, with their dogmatic and automatic antigovernment attitude, will never allow someone like Daniels to become president.


Make-believe = survival

In our last issue, I told you that most cables our diplomats send to the State Department are not read. Now comes confirmation from no less than the Secretary of State herself. Hillary Clinton is acknowledging, reports Lisa Rein of the Washington Post, that most of the thousands of reports our diplomats send to State “are never read.” Clinton, however, blames the problem on reports that the diplomats are required to write. What she does not acknowledge is that many of the cables are self-generated by the diplomats.

In my book How Washington Really Works, I explained the basic bureaucratic equation: “Make-believe = survival.” Writing memoranda and attending meetings are the activities that offer an official the opportunity to appear to be working hard and at the same time avoid trouble.

A similar truth applies to their bosses: “I have to confess, as a senator,” says Clinton, “when in doubt, order a report.”

This reminds me of a secret of Washington life enunciated by one of the great students of bureaucracy, the late Jim Boren: “When in doubt, mumble.” An important corollary is to accompany the mumble with the grave demeanor of a wise elder statesman.
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Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.  
 
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