The (Invisible) Empire Strikes Back

You hear a lot about federal employees who comprise the so-called “Deep State” these days.  They apparently don’t like the new President or his policies, and they’re concerned about what he’s going to do to their jobs.

top-secretSo, at least some of those federal employees apparently are doing what any honest, “merit-hired,” politically neutral “civil servants” would do — they’re figuring out ways to undercut the new Administration’s agenda, “slow walk” proposals, and otherwise thwart policy changes.  Politico calls it “the revenge of the bureaucrats,” and notes that the principal weapons of the “Deep State” are carefully aimed leaks, efforts to have the inspector generals of agencies investigate political appointees, and using “the tools of bureaucracy to slow or sandbag policy proposals.”  Is it any coincidence that, since the new Administration took office, leaks seem to have come fast and furious?

This is an interesting issue, because there’s a fine line between the right of federal bureaucrats to exercise their First Amendment rights and the need to have workers who will blow the whistle on misconduct, on the one hand, and the actions of politicized employees who simply don’t agree with the direction the new Administration is taking and want to try to use their special positions to stop it, on the other.  It may be a fine line, but it should be a clear line, with the former being acceptable but the latter not.  Federal employees aren’t elected, and their views of what is the best course aren’t entitled to more weight than, say, the people who voted and elected the new Administration in the first place.  Career bureaucrats shouldn’t be permitted to use passive-aggressive methods to block policy changes just because they disagree with them.

The “Deep State” employees might think they’re clever in playing a backroom game of leaks and bureaucratic maneuvers, but it’s a dangerous game for them, too — if people get the sense that the federal workforce is hopelessly politicized, it’s going to continue the long decline in public trust in government, and ultimately people who might otherwise protect the federal employees from cuts won’t do so.  The whole notion of civil service is that the federal workforce shouldn’t be political, and instead should be comprised of knowledgeable, experienced career employees ready to implement the policies of whichever Administration may take office.  If the workers themselves demonstrate that they are politicized, what’s the point of the civil service in the first place?

Bald-Faced Waste

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a bureaucrat at the National Institutes of Health charged with making decisions about spending the NIH budget.

One of your subordinates comes to you with a proposal for the NIH to spend $22,500, over two fiscal years, to fund the 9th World Congress for Hair Research.  The subordinate notes that the theme of this year’s World Congress, sponsored by the North American Hair Research Society — which will be held at the “luxurious InterContinental Miami” hotel in Miami, Florida — is Reflect, Rejuvenate, and Regenerate.  He says the Congress will bring together “hair biologists, dermatologists, cosmetic scientists and hair transplantation surgeons” to “present new research, share experiences, and discuss new directions for the advancement of knowledge in hair growth, hair and scalp disease, and clinical care” and is sponsored by the likes of Women’s Rogaine, Procter & Gamble, HairMax, Theradome, L’Oreal, Aveda, and the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery.

baldheadsDo you: (a) tell the subordinate that his proposal is a very funny joke, and share a good laugh at the outlandish idea of federal tax dollars being used to help put on a “luxurious” conference about baldness and hair restoration surgery, (b) gently but firmly tell the subordinate that baldness and hair implant surgery aren’t the kind of serious health concerns that require the attention or support of the National Institutes of Health, or (c) rubber-stamp the proposal because it’s only for $22,500 out of the multi-million dollar NIH budget and note that the session about “Robotic Hair Transplants” looks like it should be interesting.

If you picked (c), you have a future as a federal bureaucrat.

In the grand scheme of trillion-dollar federal budget and trillion-dollar deficits, a $22,500 payment toward the 9th World Congress for Hair Research — which is going on now, thanks in part to your tax dollars — is just a drop of Rogaine in the bucket.  This is about principle, however.  Either the people who make decisions about how federal tax dollars are spent are zealous guardians of the public fisc, or they aren’t.  And while some men and women may fret about losing their hair, there simply is no justification for federal support for a hair-care conference that already is amply supported by large corporate sponsors peddling hair-care products and hair restoration and regeneration treatments and techniques.

Kudos to Senator Rand Paul — whose tousled coiffure is at the other end of the hair spectrum — for calling attention to this little example of spending silliness.  You can see the NIH information about the funding for the 9th World Congress here and here, and the Congress website is here.

Our reckless federal spending has fallen off the political radar screen, both because we’ve become hardened to enormous federal budget deficits and because other issues have come to the forefront.  At some point, though, our federal government’s inability to control its budget and to resist obviously unnecessary spending will have terrible consequences.  And that’s the bald-faced truth.

At The Auto Title Division

Recently Kish and I had to go to the offices of the Auto Title Division of the Franklin County Clerk of Courts.

IMG_5481The very words invoke a kind of soul-sucking, intuitive dread.  You expect to be mired in some terrible, Kafkaesque nightmare, where blank-eyed citizens stumble through endless lines and passive-aggressive bureaucrats wield forms and regulations and filing requirements like weapons.  And when Kish and I got to the offices on a shabby stretch of Alum Creek Drive before the 8 a.m. opening and found about a dozen people already on line, and looked through the window and saw row after row of hard plastic chairs, my expectations and spirits drooped even lower.

But I’m here to confess that it wasn’t that bad.  In fact, I came away with a dawning appreciation for the employees of the Auto Title Division and the challenges they face in their jobs.

Once the doors opened we moved from our outside line to an inside line and then had to wait a few minutes while the clerks got their cash drawers ready.  As I looked around, wincing at the ever-present, high-pitched whirring sound made by an old spindle-paper printer, I realized that many of the signs and instructions were in another language, targeted at Columbus’ large population of Somali immigrants.  I started to think about how difficult it would be to have a job that requires you to deal with every person who walks through the door.  People who don’t speak the language.  People who are down on their luck, or have just experienced some unwanted change in their personal circumstances, or are frustrated that they need to make a trip to an office rather than taking care of things on-line.  They are all coming to a place where they would rather not be, because no one wants to go to the Auto Title Division.  It’s obviously an unwelcome hassle.  I’m sure each employee has to deal with multiple unhappy people each day — which wouldn’t exactly make you want to leap out of bed and whistle on your way to work.

But the line moved, and soon we were talking to a perfectly pleasant, professional, helpful young woman who looked up the record information about our car and explained what we needed to do — which required us, of course, to make a call, get another form from a third party, and then come back again later.  But the need for another trip wasn’t caused by her screw-up, but rather by an oversight by another clerk working in another bureaucracy.

Really, it wasn’t that bad.

A Little Bit More On The IRS And Politics

When my friend the Biking Brewer recommends something to read, I take notice — and not just because he is accomplished at creating fine malt beverages and has a discriminating sense of Belgian ales.

The BB sent along a link to this article from Salon, entitled When the IRS targeted liberals, that seeks to add a little context to the current story about the IRS actions with respect to conservative groups.  President Obama has called the IRS actions “outrageous” and he’s right about that — but the Salon article usefully points out that the IRS has been embroiled in political issues before.

The key point here is not which groups are being targeted by the IRS, or who is the President at the time the targeting occurs, but rather the fact that IRS employees think they have the right to target specific groups at all.  Our federal government has become so colossal in size, and so removed from interaction with average citizens, that many government employees think they can do just about whatever they damn well please because they are from the government and, well, they just know better than we do.

This isn’t a political issue — or , at least, it shouldn’t be.  When agencies like the IRS can become politicized, no one at any point on the political spectrum is safe.  The question is how to change the culture of these bureaucratic leviathans, where employees have jobs for life and have little accountability to anyone who isn’t their direct line supervisor.  Shrinking the size of the bureaucracies, and establishing performance standards that don’t give every employee a lifetime job, would be a good place to start.

The Swimming Swine Stiffs Of Shanghai

Imagine strolling along one of China’s rivers and then seeing and smelling, with disgust, a dead pig floating past.  Then imagine glancing upriver and seeing hundreds of swollen swine bobbing in the water.

That was the scene along the Huangpu — now pronounced Huang-Pee-YEW! — River in Shanghai.  With improbable precision, authorities say 5,916 deceased pigs have been pulled from the river. Some unlucky bureaucrat evidently was tasked with providing a comprehensive count of the carcasses.

The Huangpu River provides a major source of drinking water for Shanghai and its 23 million residents.  Because hogs aren’t the cleanest residents of the planet even when they are alive, and because death inevitably produces gases, fluids, and other fruits of decomposition that no rational person would want to consume, the citizens of Shanghai have expressed alarm about drinking water tainted by the cadavers.  Chinese authorities have assured them that the Huangpu water quality is safe, but the citizens are skeptical.  I’m betting that the same bean-counting bureaucrat who determined that 5,916 pigs were involved will soon find a 11,943 percent increase in the consumption of bottled water by our Chinese friends.

Curiously, the source of the thousands of perished pigs, and their cause of death, hasn’t been determined.  I’m just a city boy, and I know the Chinese interior is big, but 5,916 pigs sounds like a lot to me.  You’d think the same precise carcass-counters in the Chinese government could readily detect the disappearance of a vast herd of hogs.  And wouldn’t you want to know where the pigs came from, and how they died, before you determined that the water in which the swollen ex-swine were bobbing was safe for humans to drink?

Apparently, not in China — where first you count.

Incompetence, Squared

Think of every can-you-top-this story of bureaucratic incompetence that you have ever heard — and I read a story today that almost certainly beats it.

It happened in Cleveland, and it happened to a little boy getting ready to start kindergarten.  A letter from the Cleveland public school system told him to show up at an address four miles from his home on a particular date for the first day of school.  When he appeared at the designated time and location, he learned that it was the wrong day — in fact, school didn’t start until a week later.  What’s more, the school that formerly was found at the location wasn’t there any more — it had been demolished two years ago, leaving the little boy looking forlornly at a construction site.  And to top it all off, a telephone number provided in the letter for boy’s parents to call in case of a problem didn’t work.  The little boy was one of a number of students who received the same, inexcusable treatment.

The man who is CEO (CEO?) of the Cleveland public schools called the little boy’s family to apologize.  That’s to his credit, but he now should be spending his time trying to figure out how such a ludicrous combination of errors could possibly have occurred.  How could a notice letter have included the wrong date, the wrong address, a non-existent school, and a non-functional telephone number?  Doesn’t anyone in the Cleveland school system proofread important correspondence?  What does that tell you about their careful attention to their jobs?

Government types often wonder why so many people are so skeptical of government bureaucracies, their competence, and their responsiveness.  This story is one powerful reason.

Patton Put-On

You have to hand it to federal employees — they may be mindless bureaucratic drones in their jobs, but when it comes to spending tax dollars, they’ve got more creativity than Pablo Picasso.

The latest evidence of this phenomenon comes from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which ponied up $5 million for two week-long training sessions for human resources personnel at the World Center Marriott in Orlando, Florida — apparently the world’s largest convention hotel.  The $5 million included $52,000 spent to create a parody of the opening scene of the film Patton, as well as $84,000 for promotional items like highlighters and hand sanitizers.  (A story about the contents of the video, with a link to the video itself, is here.)  In all, 1,800 people attended the conferences, at a cost of $2,734 per person.

The VA has an important function, of course, but spending $5 million so HR personnel can be trained at a glitzy conference center — as opposed to spending the funds to better help veterans with their health care, job training and placement, and social reintegration needs — doesn’t seem like a wise use of tax dollars.

Credit should be given to the House of Representatives committee that is investigating this incident, as well as the possibility that the VA officials deciding where to hold the conference may have received improper gifts.  Congress has an important role to play in examining federal funding and shining a spotlight on waste.  The current oversight work recalls the watchdog efforts of prior legislators, such as former Democratic Senator William Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” awards given to agencies that engaged in frivolous spending.  Ferreting out and ending wasteful federal spending shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Why Fret About A $2 Million Federal Internship Program?

A few days ago the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an audit report on the Office of the Chief Information Officer’s FY 2011 and 2011 Funding Received For Security Enhancements.  It’s a report by the USDA’s internal watchdog about how one section of the USDA spent part of its budget — a look at how a tiny fraction of the sprawling federal government actually used our tax dollars.  A copy of the report is available here.

The executive summary of the report notes that, in 2010, Congress more than tripled the budget for the CIO, from an $18 million baseline to $62 million, to enhance information technology security for the agency.  In 2011, the budget was set at $40 million, more than double the $18 million baseline, for that same purpose.  The CIO therefore received $64 million in additional money over the two-year period, and it funded 16 projects with that sum.

Of the $64 million, $6.7 million — or more than 10 percent — was spent on projects not proposed to Congress.  For example, $2 million was spent on a two-year internship program that purportedly was intended to “develop and sustain a highly skilled IT security and computer technology workforce.”  The CIO spent $686,000 developing a “networking website” for the program, and another $192,000 for housing.  Only one full-time intern was hired, however.  The audit report also noted that the internship program “did little to further the more pressing objective of improving USDA’s IT security.”  Stripped of the bureaucratese, therefore, the $2 million was wasted.

Some might argue, why should we care?  It’s only a few million dollars in an overall federal budget that now amounts to trillions.  For some of us, however, a few million dollars is still a few million dollars.  We don’t want to see it wasted — particularly when, in our current deficit-spending posture, we have to borrow from somebody else, and pay them interest, as part of the ugly, wasteful bargain.

More importantly, the story of the internship program reveals a deeper truth about the bureaucratic mindset.  Why would anyone charged with enhancing IT security think an internship program was an appropriate use of the money in the first place?  The real answer, I’d wager, is empire building.  Bureaucrats want to have ongoing programs they can administer and people they can supervise; those programs get built into their job descriptions, become part of their goals and objectives for the year, and help them to move up the government wage scale.  We can only imagine how the proponents of the internship program touted their development of the “networking website,” their selection of housing, and their development of the selection process as key performance successes during the year.

This is the fundamental problem.  In a government of bureaucrats looking to build their departments and pad their resumes, the spending of tax dollars is not a significant concern on the radar screen.  That culture needs to change, so that when a mid-level administrator suggests an internship program as a proper way to improve IT security, the suggestion is met with incredulity and promptly quashed.  We need tightwads, not empire builders, in our federal agencies.

The inspector general report on the USDA CIO spending shines a light on one small part of our government, and what it illuminates is a deeply troubling cultural concern.  If we ever hope to get our spending and deficit problems under control, that culture needs to change — now.  Unfortunately, neither President Obama, nor our current Congress, is doing anything to bring about that necessary cultural change.  That is why, I think, many people are considering whether we need change at the top of our government, too.

Boring Slogans For The Buckeye State

Here’s some exciting news:  Ohio is redesigning its license plate!  It wanted Ohioans to help, so it established a website that allowed Ohioans to vote on which of dozens of different potential “facts,” phrases and slogans “best describes Ohio”!

Anyone who thinks there is no poetry lurking in the souls of the bureaucrats in the Ohio Department of Public Safety hasn’t read the list of candidates.  It includes gems like “17th State,” “1st Traffic Light,” “Glacial Grooves,” “40,948 Square Miles,” “Happiness Is Here,” and “State of Perfect Balance.”  (Seriously!)  These options make you want to hop into your car and drive all night to visit our fair state, don’t they?  Or how about “Est. 1803” — as if Ohio were a kind of hotel?  My personal favorite is the wondrously clueless “Recycle Ohio,” which if selected no doubt would be the source of sniggering amusement by Michigan Wolverine fans everywhere who read it as a command.

When you see this kind of exceptional creativity by our state government officials, it makes you perversely grateful that the license plates on most Ohio cars are completely covered with muck, ice, and road salt grime during the winter months.

We’re From The Government, And We’re Here To Help You

There’s a reason most Americans think the line “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you” is funny.  It’s because we’ve all experienced the run-around at some governmental agency, where we’ve been told to move from one line to another for inexplicable reasons or we’ve been unable to get a simple answer to a simple question.

The point is well made by a story about President Obama’s recent response to a farmer’s question at a town hall meeting in Illinois.  The farmer asked about some impending regulations about dust, runoff, and noise that he had heard about, and the President — after gently encouraging the farmer to not believe everything he heard — confidently told the farmer to “Call USDA” because they would be able to answer his questions.

An enterprising reporter took the President’s advice.  The resulting story is a classic example of governmental run-around that catalogs every call the reporter made and every non-responsive response the reporter received.  Through nine phones calls over two days, the reporter is bounced from the USDA to the Illinois Department of Agriculture to the Illinois Farm Bureau, back to the Illinois Department of Agriculture and then to various departments within that agency.  Everyone steers the reporter to someone else.

The reporter ends up at the media relations department at USDA headquarters in Washington, where he receives a statement that is a classic of both bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and the CYA mentality found in many governmental entities:  “Secretary Vilsack continues to work closely with members of the Cabinet to help them engage with the agricultural community to ensure that we are separating fact from fiction on regulations because the administration is committed to providing greater certainty for farmers and ranchers. Because the question that was posed did not fall within USDA jurisdiction, it does not provide a fair representation of USDA’s robust efforts to get the right information to our producers throughout the country.”

This story is all-too-familiar to anyone who has had to wrestle with governmental bureaucracies.  It’s one reason why many people take no comfort in confident statements that more governmental programs and more regulations will solve our problems.  And, it leaves the ultimate issue open:  Who’s going to answer the poor farmer’s question?

Your Tax Dollars At Work, Protecting Americans From Unlicensed Neighborhood Lemonade Stands

Does anyone in government stop and think about what they are really doing, anymore?

Here’s the latest story of some ridiculous lack of judgment by a government regulator.  A 7-year-old girl in a suburb of Portland, Oregon sets up a lemonade stand at a neighborhood festival and starts serving lemonade made from bottled water and Kool-Aid mix, at a price of 50 cents a cup.  Some county health inspector with a clipboard comes up and asks the kid to show her temporary restaurant license.  Not surprisingly, the child doesn’t have one — they cost $120, after all — and the health inspector tells the kid that she has to close up shop or face a $500 fine.  The child left in tears.  Of course, the county health inspectors defend the action, saying that they “need to put the public’s health first” and must “protect the public” no matter how small the business or how young the proprietor.

Didn’t anyone at the county health department ever have a lemonade stand?  Doesn’t anyone at the county health department have any common sense?  Is unlicensed lemonade sold by a 7-year-old really such an enormous risk to public health that the full weight of the country government must be brought to bear?

Whether a 7-year-old gets to run a lemonade stand without being harassed and reduced to tears by clipboard-waving bureaucrats doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things.  This story reveals a greater concern about how government works, however.  One reason why some people, at least, oppose the government making decisions about their health care is precisely because they are worried that those momentous decisions will be made by nameless bureaucrats who don’t have the sense to determine that a 7-year-old’s lemonade stand doesn’t pose a fundamental risk to public health.

What Do Bureaucrats Do, Anyway?

I commend the Obama Administration for quickly making available a summary of the initial findings about the unsuccessful attempt by the U-Trou Bomber to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.  A copy of the report if available here.  It is sobering, and troubling, reading.

After I read the report, the main question that came to my mind was:  “What do government bureaucrats do during their workday, anyway?”  The summary report states that there were multiple agencies that bore some part of the responsibility for the failures that allowed Umar Abdulmutallab to board the Northwest flight with a United States visa — despite his father’s explicit warnings about Abdulmutallab’s apparent radicalization and trip to Yemen, despite the fact that Great Britain had refused him a visa, despite the fact that he paid for his ticket with cash, and despite the fact that he boarded the plane without checking any luggage.  It seems clear that the lower-level employees charged with collecting and communicating such bits of intelligence did their job and got the relevant information into the system.  At that point, however, the ball got dropped.

This suggests two levels of failure.  First, the people who were charged with “connecting the dots” failed to do so.  That failure is unfortunate but is at least understandable, because humans obviously can make mistakes.  The more unacceptable failure, in my view, is of those bureaucrats whose jobs give them a more high-level view of the overall homeland defense process.  Those individuals should have recognized the risks posed by the byzantine, divided nature of the system in which different government agencies perform different functions that relate to the same overall issue of who is permitted entry to the United States.  The existence of multiple agencies looking at different pieces of the puzzle obviously raises the prospect of coordination and information-sharing problems.  Why didn’t someone see those problems as, in fact, problems and take steps to cure them by consolidating the work?  Why didn’t one of the supervisory bureaucrats establish some kind of check function to make sure that appropriate analysis of the data, and that coordination with other agencies, was being properly implemented?  Why didn’t those in charge of the agencies push for the kind of computer search engine capability that would allow our intelligence agencies to sift through mounds of data about particular individuals as quickly and thoroughly as a Google search?

Logically, addressing these kinds of questions should have been the principal responsibility of multiple people at the various agencies with a role in homeland protection.  They clearly didn’t properly discharge that responsibility. What were they doing, instead?  Were their days devoted to bureaucratic infighting, to preparing CYA documentation, to coming up with attempted spin to counter criticism of their agencies, or to other political activities?  These are the questions that, I hope, ultimately will be answered as the government takes a deeper look at the failures that allowed the U-Trou Bomber to come so close to achieving a deadly terrorist act on Christmas Day.