What a Mess!

Reforming the American Political System

It is early February 2009 and already President Obama is struggling with his cabinet choices and with candidates too careless to pay their taxes. Wouldn’t you think candidates would clean up their acts well in advance? What is the I.Q of some of these people?

Is all this predictable? Yes!

Commentators wrangle over whether candidates for office knew the law, whose fault it was that taxes were not paid, who knew what, when, and so on. But they miss the basic point.

It’s the system, stupid!

British Prime Minister Walpole, earlier in the 18th Century, created the system whereby the King appointed his First Minister and allowed this minister to bring his supporters and buddies into office, regardless of experience or brainpower. It was a corrupt system based on money, influence, landowning interest and rotten boroughs for sale. When the American Constitution was created it was based upon the British political system of the time - - without the rotten boroughs, with less of the chronic corruption, and with the supervision of Congress.

The British system, however, did not survive the reforms of the 19th Century and in due course the British instituted a professional civil service, with stringent entrance exams. The old system was too embarrassing, even for the Establishment. Henceforward, incoming British political cabinets relied on experienced and permanent civil servants who provided continuity and “knew where the bodies were buried”. This system, parodied in Yes, Minister, gave great power to senior civil servants and has only recently been subverted by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. But it served Britain well and was successfully exported to countries like India (although latterly Indians have managed to politicized parts of what used to be an excellent civil service).

But the professionalization of the civil service never reached the upper echelons of the American civil service, and in the 21st Century American Presidents still bring their political supporters into jobs that in European countries are usually carried out by professional civil servants. Buggin‘s Turn was the old expression used for the re-cycling of sometimes less-than-competent bureaucrats, and it still applies in America. If you are used to this way of proceeding, it seems normal; if not, the revolving door seems, to be polite, cumbersome and unproductive.

There may be advantages to this huge turnover of jobs every eight (and often four) years, but is it possible that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages?

Firstly, even an Administration that prided itself on an efficient processing of applicants and jobs has already taken three months (and will take more) to get its principal officers in place and confirmed by Congress, and this is without the missteps and false starts. Confirmation by the legislature is a good thing, but the appointee cannot get to grips with his senior (political) staffing until he knows he or she has the job. So presumably it can take months before the Department is up and running at full speed.

The disruption is even worse further down the scale when upper/middle managers, political appointees, leave and rows of temporarily empty offices betoken a lack of direction. The government runs as best it can and, until the new politicos arrive, the policies of the previous President presumably persist, with a potential for confusion.

This might have been fine in the more stately days of the horse and buggy, but the “strict constitutionalists” haven’t noticed the advance in time and technology. It is not satisfactory when you are fighting two wars, have the worst economic crisis in living memory, and life is moving at the speed of light compared with the days of George Washington. In other countries the process takes days, but then there is usually a “shadow” cabinet ready to move in. In the United States there is not only no shadow cabinet, but there is no real leader of the Opposition while the other party is in power. The leader of the opposition emerges in the primaries and typically changes every four years.

To foreigners the system seems quaint, and even Americans hold their breath in case a huge crisis erupts and finds appropriate senior officials unconfirmed by Congress or not yet up to speed. When Senator Biden said that the President might be “tested” early on in his term (by al Queda?), the media criticized him. But thoughtful people had the same concern. This process of forming a government sure is long-winded! And it is not really necessary.

Secondly, in a system that finds political appointees out on their necks every eight (or four) years, you must expect them to find other work to do, and naturally they wake up to the fact that there is money to be earned, sometimes from sources that have disagreeable agendas and could be an embarrassment to them later on. Say you are responsible for health care, leave office and take huge sums of money from health care companies who hope for benefits and influence. It is hardly surprising if your political opponents ask questions about your impartiality if, when the merry-go-round comes round and your party is back in power, you are appointed to a position of interest to your former employers.

In the parliamentary system the prime minister picks, say, 200 people from the elected representatives, and (in theory anyway) their job is to establish policy and leave the civil service to execute it. In the American system huge numbers of outsiders come in and do they restrict themselves to policy formulation? No, they execute it.

In the American system - - in and out, in and out - - sets up the wrong incentives. It fails to reward good people adequately and positively encourages them to go out from time to time to get rich on the proceeds of the experience gained during the period when their salaries are paid by the taxpayer. The system is incestuous and lends itself to temptation. The out-of-work activists join the big lobbying groups, whose power continues to grow. Politicians need K Street as a refuge. K Street needs the out of office politicians, who know their way about and, who knows, may be back in power in the near future. To call this by the old-fashioned word, it is corruption.

Lobbyists are not all bad. Everyone should be allowed to lobby his or her government, local and national, to put a point of view or protest a policy. It is a sign of a healthy democracy. What shouldn’t be allowed is, firstly, for money to change hands, either for personal use or for election expenses. Secondly, top federal employees are invited onto Boards of corporations with little idea or control over the inner working of the company and unable to do anything substantive to help daily company affairs. But they can earn huge sums by arranging back-room introductions to key people in Congress or the Administration. This is influence peddling.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the time-servers who support the current system and feed upon it, would argue that influence is open to all. But the supporters of the system would say that, wouldn’t they? The reality is that the most influence goes to those with the deepest pockets. The car industry has bought its way out of having to increase miles per gallon for its cars for years by lavishing millions on grateful politicians running for office. “That”, they say complacently, “is the American system”, as if it were the best system ever devised. We are supposed to admire it. And the said Tweedledum and Tweedledee have the gall to then lecture the rest of the world about democracy!

The system is also an inefficient use of scarce resources. Those who serve the public and are smart and informed should be well rewarded as senior civil servants, with tenure. Tenure ensures continuity, especially important to tax-paying companies (who don’t like sudden change) and foreign governments (who dislike sudden lurches in policy). Senior public servants should not have to endure bouts of unemployment, languishing in think tanks that seem to be designed to mop up the policy geeks who are left on the shelf. Yes, permanent civil servants can be arrogant and obstructive, but the trick is to move them from department to department during their careers so that they retain institutional memory but not too much power. By folding in the come-and-go operatives into the professional civil service and legislating dire consequences for the peddling of influence one should get a better government, better morale, and more continuity.

I am given to understand that some political operatives, on leaving office, take with them paperwork generated by them while they are in power. This would seem to be, to those of us with a degree of common sense, to be theft of public property. The position papers, policy directives, emails and letters produced by these people were produced while they were public salaried employees, using civil service facilities. They should be made to return all this material. Can you imagine coming into your new office at the start of a new Administration and there are no files, no background to past decisions and no one around who was privy to decisions made that affect the public and the world? What a way to run a government!

It is even worse when a President hijacks everything in sight for his “Presidential Library”. Excuse me, it is all public property! What is the President paid by the taxpayer? $400,000 a year? At least he doesn’t move out with the White House fixtures and fittings, claiming “executive privilege”.

None of this would matter if the government of the United States was perceived as good. But Republicans think the government is the problem and should be reduced in size or even eliminated altogether. Nonsense like this should need no comment. But the fact is that even liberals think the government is wasteful. And yet it keeps growing remorselessly, run by the same small group of dubiously ethical operatives.

There are scores of lawyers in Washington D.C, not to mention the fellers on the Supreme Court. Can no one use a bit of common sense?