Tilting at Windmills

March/ April 2013 McCruzyism … Too big to jail … Wake up, Democrats

By Charles Peters

In the lobby’s pocket
The extreme example of a lobby’s influence is the power the gun industry’s National Rifle Association exercises over the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A recent article by Peter Finn and Sari Horwitz of the Post explains the extent of the NRA’s sway. Because of the NRA, the ATF has fewer agents than it did in 1970, takes up to eight years between inspections of gun stores, and is prohibited from creating a searchable database of gun ownership. Over the last six years, the Senate, because of pressure from the NRA, has refused to confirm the appointments of the director of the ATF by either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

Another assignment for the Post
Sequestration provides another example of the kind of story I wish the Post would do. All the stories I have seen seem to accept the Pentagon’s claims that the planned budget cuts would do harm to essential defense. Of course, taken together, it is clear that the size of the cuts would almost certainly damage the economy and some parts of our defense, but common sense suggests that there are sensible cuts to be made at the Pentagon.

My own experience in government long ago taught me what I call the “Firemen First” principle, meaning that an agency, faced with a budget cut, will quickly announce that those cuts will result in the loss of its most essential service—firemen, for example—while the excess bureaucrats at the head-
quarters go unmentioned.

Slice this layer cake
These excess bureaucrats are the subject of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary for policy at the Department of Defense during Obama’s first term. One example she gives is that over the past decade in the Pentagon, defense agencies, and defense headquarters staff, “the number of DOD civilians increased by more than 100,000, to roughly 778,000 in 2010.”

Flournoy, who also served at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, says that the 600 people working in policy in the ’90s had, by the time she returned, “grown to nearly 1,000.”

One method she suggests for eliminating the excess employees is “de-layering.” If that term mystifies you, “layering” refers to the tendency of a government employee to want to be a chief, and when he gets to be a chief, to have deputy chiefs and assistant chiefs to make his role seem more important. Then new titles for new layers of bureaucracy have to be invented so the chiefs, deputies, and assistants can be promoted, and so on and so on.

When more is better
Though it’s true that some budget cuts can be made, it is also true that more government spending is often needed—in improving the nation’s infrastructure, for example, or in strengthening the enforcement arms of the Internal Revenue Service and many regulatory agencies, which Republicans regularly gut because of their biases against taxes and regulation. Thus we need reporting that helps us sort out not only where agencies need less money, but where they need more.

Dangerous minds
I am a supporter of stringent gun control, but I am troubled by the conviction of some pro-control advocates that their position is somehow weakened by conceding that serious mental health problems contribute to the violence. The Gabby Giffords shooting in Tucson, the shooting at the Aurora movie theater in Denver, and the shooting at the primary school in Newtown were all committed by men who were quite obviously mentally ill.

Years ago, after we had been shocked by movies like The Snake Pit, we decided to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, but as the psychiatrist Fuller Torrey pointed out in these pages a decade ago, we neglected to fund enough outpatient mental health clinics. Those that were funded tended to favor the easier-to-treat neurotics, rather than the more difficult, potentially violent patients. And few of us have wanted to face the difficult problem of how to compel the potentially violent to take the necessary medication.

Do you get a promotion for finding bin Laden?
Speaking of promotions, Maya did not get one. In case you’ve not seen Zero Dark Thirty, Maya is the name the movie gives to the CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain, who single-mindedly pursued her belief that al-Qaeda’s network of couriers would eventually lead to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout.

She was proven right, of course, but along the way, she managed to antagonize the many other CIA officers who were wrong.

The promotion she was denied was from GS 13 to GS 14. There are about 120,000 GS 14s in the civil service. In other words, it’s not exactly a Congressional Medal of Honor-type distinction, but more an expected rite of passage for someone of Maya’s experience. One of her colleagues, explaining her problem to Greg Miller of the Post, said, “She’s not Miss Congeniality”—but, he added, “that’s not going to find bin Laden.” I agree. It sounds very much like she should have been promoted. At the very least, the fact that she was denied a promotion should have received much wider attention from the media.

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.