Tilting at Windmills

March/April 2011 The ugly truth in twenty-one words… The bakery-industrial complex… Make-believe = survival

By Charles Peters

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.


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

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.