[Paleopsych] Government Executive: Bush and the bureaucracy: a crusade for control
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Bush and the bureaucracy: a crusade for control (3/25/05)
DAILY BRIEFING March 25, 2005
By Paul Singer, National Journal
psinger at nationaljournal.com
Two weeks before George W. Bush's 2001 inauguration, the Heritage
Foundation issued a paper offering the new president advice on "taking
charge of federal personnel."
The authors -- two former officials at the Office of Personnel
Management and a former congressional staffer who is now at OPM --
laid out an ambitious agenda to overhaul civil service rules and
"reassert managerial control of government." The paper emphasized the
importance of appointing strong leaders to key government positions
and holding bureaucrats "personally accountable for achievement of the
president's election-endorsed and value-defined program."
Reminded of this paper recently, co-author Robert Moffit, who has
moved on to other issues at Heritage, dusted off a copy and called a
reporter back with a hint of rejoicing in his voice. "They apparently
are really doing this stuff," he said.
To Moffit and other proponents of strong management, the Bush White
House has indeed initiated a dramatic transformation of the federal
bureaucracy, trying to create a leaner, more results-oriented
government that can better account for taxpayer dollars. Reshaping the
agenda of government to match the president's priorities is the
purpose of democratic elections, Moffit said.
But critics charge that the White House is embarking on a crusade to
replace expert judgment in federal agencies with political
calculation, to marginalize or eliminate longtime civil servants, to
change laws without going through Congress, to silence dissenting
views within the government, and to centralize decision-making in the
"A president cannot wave a wand and wipe prior policy, as implemented
by duly enacted statutes, off the books," said Rena Steinzor, a
founder and board member of the Center for Progressive Regulation, a
think tank of liberal academics. "We have made a judgment as a nation,
for decades, that an independent bureaucracy is very important." The
Bush administration, she said, is "politicizing and terrorizing the
bureaucracy, and turning it 180 degrees."
Critics point to a long list of manifestations of greater White House
control. Among them:
* Reorganizations in various federal agencies, such as major staff
cuts anticipated at NASA, that eliminate career civil service
staff, or replace managers with political appointees;
* New management systems to grade federal agencies on the results
they achieve, with the White House in charge of defining
* Increased White House oversight of regulations issued by the
Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, and
other departments and agencies;
* The president's proposal to replace the civil service employment
system with new, government-wide "pay-for-performance" rules that
make it easier for managers to promote, reward, or fire employees;
* "Competitive sourcing" requirements that force thousands of
federal workers to compete against private contractors to keep
* A series of steps that may weaken traditional watchdogs and the
office that protects whistle-blowers;
* New restrictions on the public release of government information,
including a huge jump in the number of documents labeled
* A growing cadre of government employees who are going public with
charges that their recommendations were ignored, their reports
edited, or their conclusions reversed by their political-appointee
managers, at the behest of the White House.
Many presidents have tried to reshape the federal bureaucracy to their
liking. President Nixon had his "Management by Objective" program that
attempted to rein in anti-poverty programs; President Clinton had his
"Reinventing Government" initiative that aimed to improve government
services and streamline rules. But under Bush, White House control of
the federal agencies is "more coordinated and centralized than it has
ever been," said New York University professor of public service Paul
Light, who is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It
is a sea change from what it was under the Clinton administration."
Clay Johnson, who as deputy director for management at the Office of
Management and Budget is the point man for Bush's "management agenda,"
denied any "Republican conspiracy" to control the bureaucracy or
silence civil servants. "It's about things working better; it's not
about controlling," Johnson said. "The thing that we can impose more
of than anything else is clarity -- clarity of purpose. We want to
have a real clear definition of what success is," he said.
"The overall goal of all that we are doing," Johnson added, "is, we
want to get to the point in three or four years where we can say to
the American taxpayer that every program is getting better every
The federal bureaucracy is a notoriously unwieldy beast. It includes
about 1.9 million civilian employees, many of whom have agendas that
differ from the president's. Each administration, Republican or
Democratic, struggles with its relationship with an army of workers
who were on the job before the new political team arrived, and who
expect to be there after the team leaves.
"You have this bizarre cycle, where the leader comes into the room and
says, 'We are going to march north,' and the bureaucracy all applaud,"
said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. "Then the leader leaves
the room, and the bureaucracy says, 'Yeah, well, this "march north"
thing is terrific, but this year, to be practical, we have to keep
marching south. But what we'll do is, we'll hire a consultant to study
marching north, so that next year we can begin to think about whether
or not we can do it.' "
The White House is proud of its management initiatives and Bush's
reputation as "the M.B.A. president." The administration regularly
issues press releases to announce progress on the President's
Management Agenda -- a list of priorities that includes competitive
sourcing and development of "e-government." And Bush's fiscal 2006
budget includes cuts based on performance assessments for hundreds of
individual federal programs. But critics fear that the management
agenda, combined with an array of other administration initiatives,
has established a framework that makes it easier for political
appointees to overrule, marginalize, or even fire career employees who
question the president's agenda.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule earlier
this month to regulate emissions of mercury from power plants. In
unveiling the rule, the EPA asserted that it represents the most
stringent controls on mercury ever issued. According to the agency,
the requirements are cost-effective, will achieve significant health
benefits, and will create an economic incentive for companies to
continually improve their environmental performance.
But the rule is driven by the Bush administration's novel -- some say,
illegal -- interpretation of the Clean Air Act that allows the EPA to
avoid imposing mandatory emissions controls on each facility.
Environmentalists, and some EPA staff, contend that the mercury rule
is far weaker than one the Clinton administration proposed, and that
political appointees at the agency ignored the scientific and legal
judgment of career staff to push the rule through the regulatory
The battle over the mercury rule has been bitter and public. Many
other efforts to tighten central control are buried deep within the
bowels of the bureaucracy.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is not generally a
political hotbed. A division of the Agriculture Department, the NRCS
-- working through "conservationist" offices in each state -- is
responsible for helping farmers implement soil and water conservation
measures, such as restoring wetlands, building dams, and designing
systems to prevent animal waste from running off into waterways.
In a major reorganization over the past two years, NRCS chief Bruce
Knight eliminated the service's six regional offices, which were
headed by career managers and oversaw the state offices. He replaced
the six regional managers with three political appointees in
Washington and shuffled 200 career staffers from the regional offices
into other offices throughout the agency.
Knight said the reorganization is "really just a strong business
case." It created a "flatter, leaner structure" that relies much more
heavily on the expertise of the state conservationists and makes
better use of employees, he said. "I had about 200 highly valuable
[employees] scattered around the country, and I needed to put them at
the mission of the agency."
But in so doing, Knight has also raised concerns about the
independence of the technical staffers who oversee conservation
measures across the country.
Under the new structure, career NRCS scientists might worry that their
technical decisions about where to spend money and how to implement
programs will be overruled for political purposes, said Rich
Duesterhaus, a former NRCS staffer and now director of government
affairs for the National Association of Conservation Districts.
"They clearly now have a direct line from the politically appointed
chief, through these three politically appointed regional assistant
chiefs, to the line officers who supervise and carry out these
programs," Duesterhaus said. And why should political control over a
soil and water conservation agency matter? Because the 2002 farm bill
doubled the NRCS's budget for assistance to farmers, from about $1.5
billion in 2001 to $2.8 billion in 2006, with a total increase of $18
billion slated through 2012.
"In the old days, the money wasn't big enough to matter," Duesterhaus
said, but the influx of cash in 2002 has made the NRCS "a contender in
terms of spoils, and where those spoils go becomes an issue." With
direct political oversight of the state conservationists, Duesterhaus
said, "it becomes a little easier to say, 'Well, we need Ohio, so make
sure we put a little extra money in Ohio.' "
Earlier this month, Charles Adams, one of the six career regional
conservationists who were unseated in the reorganization, filed a
discrimination complaint against Knight and other agency officials,
arguing that the reorganization derailed his 37-year career in favor
of three political appointees with far less expertise. "I allege that
... a calculated, arbitrary, and capricious decision was made to
preclude me from the line and leadership of this agency," Adams wrote
in his complaint to the Agriculture Department's Office of Civil
Knight rejects any suggestion that he has politicized the work of a
technical agency. "The real power is in the state conservationist, the
career individual in the state who manages the budget and the people,"
he said. "Most people will agree that we are more scientifically and
technologically based now" than before the reorganization. The agency
has about 12,500 staff members and only a dozen political appointees,
But employees in other federal agencies have also asserted that
reorganization plans have bumped career managers from senior
positions, or diluted their authority.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is instituting a major
overhaul that will create a new layer of "coordinating centers" --
including a strategic center responsible for developing long-term
goals for the agency -- between CDC Director Julie Gerberding and the
health and science centers that formerly reported directly to her.
Gerberding said, "I don't think our goal is to have control over the
organization -- our goal is to have an impact on health."
But some career staffers say they are being pushed aside and losing
the ability to manage their programs. The Washington Post earlier this
month reported a memo from a top CDC official warning that CDC
employees are suffering a "crisis of confidence" and that they feel
"cowed into silence." CDC aides -- who are unwilling to have their
names published for fear of reprisals -- say they are losing the
ability to make independent professional judgments on topics ranging
from sexual abstinence, to drug use, to influenza. Gerberding replied,
"I think that is a very inaccurate assessment of what is going on at
Nevertheless, throughout the federal government, complaints can be
heard from disgruntled civil servants who feel they are being elbowed
aside by the political leadership -- though it is hard to assess
whether the invariably anonymous sources have been targeted for
elimination or are simply frightened of the change.
Some of the administration's efforts have attracted congressional
scrutiny. On March 16, the House Science panel's Space and Aeronautics
Subcommittee held a hearing on the administration's plan to slash
funding for aeronautics research at NASA and to eliminate 2,000 jobs
in order to focus the agency on the president's "Vision for Space
Exploration," which includes the goal of manned missions to Mars.
But the administration is not backing down. In fact, it wants more
authority to carry out these reorganizations. The White House has said
it is drafting legislative proposals to create a "sunset" process
requiring federal programs to rejustify their existence every 10 years
and to set up "reform" commissions giving the president authority to
initiate major restructuring of programs. House Government Reform
Committee Chairman Tom Davis
, R-Va., said in an interview this month that he believes that
Congress should restore the president's unilateral authority to
reorganize executive branch agencies -- authority that presidents held
from the late 1930s until 1984, and that Nixon used when he created
the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Beyond its tinkering with organizational structures, the White House
is pursuing a sweeping overhaul of personnel rules that is aimed at
giving managers across the federal government more flexibility to
promote, punish, or fire hundreds of thousands of civil servants.
While a proposed transformation of the pay systems at the Defense and
Homeland Security departments has spurred vigorous debate -- fueled by
the administration's announcement in January that it wants to extend
these systems to the rest of the federal government -- less fanfare
attended last year's rollout of a new pay-for-performance plan for the
roughly 6,000 veteran federal government managers who constitute the
Senior Executive Service.
Together, the two new approaches give political appointees in federal
agencies greater authority to reward or discipline senior career
managers, and give managers the same authority over the civil servants
below them. The White House calls this a "modern" personnel system,
where everyone is judged on results. Critics call it a process for
weeding out recalcitrant civil servants or political opponents.
The new pay-for-performance plan for the Senior Executive Service
eliminates annual raises for top career managers and replaces them
with a system of merit ratings. Some career executives fear that the
system will allow the White House to simply push aside managers who
are unenthusiastic about the president's agenda.
"We all know that performance is in the eyes of the beholder, no
matter what you say about wanting to have many numerical indicators
and so forth," said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives
Association, which represents members of the SES. "The concern is that
if you know that your boss has the total authority to not give you a
pay raise, are you going to be more inclined to skirt an ethics
requirement for them? Are you going to be more inclined to do what is
perhaps not really right?"
And the layers of performance ratings based on the president's goals
serve to reinforce the agenda throughout the bureaucracy, Bonosaro
said. "You kick the general, and the general comes back and kicks the
soldiers, and it goes down the line."
In another move, which could affect thousands of civil servants, Bush
has made "competitive sourcing" one of his primary management goals
for federal agencies, requiring government workers to compete for
their jobs against private contractors.
In January, OMB reported that government employees had won about 90
percent of the 30,000 jobs awarded in 2003 and 2004, with decisions
still to be made on about 15,000 jobs offered for competition in those
years. But in February, the Federal Aviation Administration announced
that Lockheed Martin had won the government's largest-ever job
competition, covering about 2,300 flight-service jobs. FAA workers
slated to be displaced under the contract filed an appeal this month,
complaining that the agency's bidding process was flawed.
"Everything they do is sending the signal [to employees] that they can
be replaced easily by contractors, if the work they do isn't done by
whatever standards the president is going to put out in his new
measurement system," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National
Treasury Employees Union.
"It's all about putting more power in the hands of the appointees and
making it easier to downgrade, get rid of, use the rules as a weapon
against employees who are not in lockstep with you," said Mark Roth,
general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees.
OMB's Johnson denies any intent to enforce political orthodoxy on the
civil service. "Rewarding people for their political views is against
the law. It's like incest: verboten. Not allowed. Doesn't happen,"
"You are being encouraged, and evaluated, and mentored, and managed,
and held accountable for doing things that the administration
considers to be important," he said. "That does not mean vote
Republican versus Democrat; that doesn't mean be pro-life or
pro-choice, or be for strict-constructionist judges, or be against
strict-constructionist judges," Johnson contended.
"We are controlling what the definition of success is, but shame on us
if that's a bad idea. I think it's a really good idea," Johnson said.
"It is a mind-set and an approach, and it is a focus on results that
[the president] is imposing. It's not 'I want everyone to be like me
and have the same political beliefs as me.' "
Checks and Balances
But what if "incest" does happen? Where would a civil servant go to
report "verboten" behavior?
Critics of the administration charge that the White House is tampering
with the independent structures that protect against waste, fraud,
abuse, and political retribution -- the federal inspectors general and
the Office of General Counsel. The White House vehemently denies the
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Government
Reform Committee, issued a report last October -- and updated it in
January -- declaring that the Bush administration was appointing
inspectors general with political connections to the White House much
more frequently than the Clinton administration did. Working with a
very small sample -- 11 IGs appointed by Bush, 32 appointed by Clinton
-- Waxman's report concludes that 64 percent of the Bush appointees
had political experience on their resumes, and only 18 percent had
audit experience. For the Clinton appointees, the ratios were
reversed: 22 percent had political backgrounds, 66 percent had audit
Gaston Gianni, who until his retirement in December was the
Clinton-appointed inspector general at the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation and vice chairman of the President's Council on Integrity
and Efficiency -- an IG professional group -- said, "I've read the
Waxman report. Factually, it's correct. The conclusions, I don't think
flow from the facts."
Gianni said it is true that the Bush administration is favoring
political background rather than investigative experience in
appointing IGs, but he said there is no evidence that the people Bush
has appointed have any less independence or zeal for their work.
Nevertheless, Gianni said, the practice worries him. "The environment
is such, as we go forward, that the perception will be that, rather
than 'small-p' political appointees, they are going to become
'capital-P' Political appointees. Even though nothing else has
changed, that is what the perception will be."
Steinzor and NYU's Light agree that the White House has generally sent
the message to inspectors that an excess of independence may be bad
for their careers.
Last July, Johnson and Gianni signed a memo to inspectors general and
agency heads, spelling out the "working relationship principles" for
both positions and emphasizing the need for mutual respect,
objectivity, and communication between an IG and his or her agency
head. Johnson serves as the chairman of the president's council on
integrity, and the memo was his idea. Some critics read it as a
warning to IGs not to be too aggressive, but Johnson denies any such
"The IGs should not be, by definition, adversarial agents," Johnson
said. "They are there to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. The heads of
agency are there to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. The IGs, by
definition, are for positive change.... Where you get into
disagreements is when somebody tries to constantly play 'gotcha,' or
where the IG gets a little too enamored of their independent status
and tries to do things in a negative fashion, tries to uproot things,
or identify things that will hurt the agency," he said. "The IG is
there to help the agency."
Johnson said that he had recommended the "relationship principles" to
the professional group, but that IGs and agency officials drafted the
Light said there is nothing untoward about principles extolling the
virtues of communication and common decency, but he argued that the
memo -- together with the pattern noted in the Waxman report and some
high-profile firings of IGs early in the Bush administration -- sets a
tone that may have a chilling effect on inspectors.
Johnson dismisses this concern. "I don't think there is any
information that suggests that the IGs are less critical than they
have been. I don't think there is anything that says they are finding
less waste, fraud, and abuse, that they are being less effective IGs
as a result of this 'Republican conspiracy.' "
The Office of Special Counsel is a bigger concern for administration
critics. Established as an independent agency charged with protecting
whistle-blowers and civil servants who are mistreated for political or
other reasons unconnected with their performance, the office is in a
bitter feud with several of its employees who argue that they are
being punished for resisting attempts by Bush's appointee to dismantle
Among other things, current and former employees charge that Special
Counsel Scott Bloch has summarily dismissed hundreds of whistle-blower
complaints, instigated a reorganization of the office that will
significantly increase political control of investigations, and forced
senior staff members critical of his work to choose between relocating
to regional offices or being fired. Several anonymous employees,
joined by four public-interest groups, filed formal charges against
Bloch on March 3, and at least half a dozen staff members have
resigned or been fired for refusing to relocate.
Bloch characterizes the complaints against his office as the work of a
few disgruntled employees, reinforced by groups that are on a mission
to embarrass the White House. Together, these critics are "going out
and making reckless allegations that have no truth. They don't like
the success Bush officials are having in dealing with the
bureaucracy," Bloch said. "They don't want a Bush appointee like
myself to get credit" for reducing a large backlog of old cases that
were languishing when Bloch took office in 2004. "We have doubled our
enforcement over prior years in all areas," Bloch said. His critics
"hurl accusations at the office and basically say insulting things
about their fellow employees, and they are false."
Levers of Government
An Interior Department official who has worked in the federal
government for 30 years denied that the White House is trying to
marginalize the civil service, arguing that what people are seeing is
simply better executive management from the White House.
"This administration runs a more effective management of the
government than did the previous administration, which was a lot more
loosey-goosey," this person said, requesting anonymity to speak freely
about his bosses. "They bring more of a business mind-set, but I don't
think that's a particularly bad thing. They are more organized, and
they are smart about it."
The sharper management focus extends into the minutiae of government,
giving the White House oversight and control of the executive branch
at several levels. In some cases, the Bush administration is creating
new approaches, but in most cases, officials are simply using
authorities created under prior administrations and applying them more
For example, Clinton issued a regulatory-review executive order in
1993, charging OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs with
ensuring that regulations "are consistent with applicable law [and]
the president's priorities." The order emphasized use of the best
available science and the most cost-effective approach to regulations.
The Bush administration has built on this executive order, setting new
requirements for reviewing the costs and benefits of regulatory
proposals, establishing a higher threshold for reaching scientific
certainty in regulatory decisions, and creating new opportunities for
outside experts to challenge the government's conclusions about the
dangers that a rule is designed to mitigate.
A regulatory agency career official who demanded anonymity said that
OIRA, under the Bush administration, is "much more active" in the
regulatory process. "They get involved much earlier in the process on
large rules," the official said. "They are reviewing drafts of
preambles as they are being written for some rules, or sections of
The executive order gives OMB 90 days to review agency rules, but OIRA
Administrator John Graham said in an e-mail response to a reporter's
query: "During an important rule-making, OIRA may work informally with
agencies at the early stages of the rule-making. This early OIRA
participation is designed to make sure that our benefit-cost
perspective receives a fair hearing, before key decisions are made and
final documents are drafted."
Graham added, "A key benefit of early OIRA involvement is that the
pace of rule-making is accelerated by building consensus early in the
process and avoiding contentious delays beyond the 90-day review
period." He said that the majority of OMB staffers are career civil
servants with significant expertise in their issue areas and that,
contrary to the assumptions of many critics, OMB involvement does not
always result in an outcome that is more favorable to industry. For
example, he said, OMB initiated a Food and Drug Administration
rule-making to require that producers add the trans-fat content of
foods to nutritional labels.
Sally Katzen, who held both John Graham's job and Clay Johnson's job
during her years in the Clinton administration, said, "There is
nothing wrong with more-centralized review, guidance, and oversight.
It is, after all, a president -- singular -- who is the head of the
executive branch." But, she cautioned, "the problems we face are often
highly technical or otherwise highly complicated, and those who serve
in the White House or OMB do not have all the answers. And they
certainly don't have the manpower, the expertise, or the intimate
familiarity with the underlying detail. They cannot -- and, in my
mind, should not -- replace the agency expertise, the agency
knowledge, and the agency experience."
While OIRA serves as the central regulatory-review office for the
White House, OMB has also positioned itself as the central
performance-accountability office, with the establishment of the
"President's Management Agenda" and the Program Assessment Rating
Tool, or PART, under which the White House grades every agency and
program on the basis of its management activities and real-world
results. After several years of conducting the assessments without
imposing any real consequences for failure, the administration, in the
first budget proposal of Bush's second term, used the results
assessments to justify eliminating or significantly reducing funding
for about 150 federal programs.
John Kamensky, who was deputy director of the National Performance
Review (the "reinventing government" initiative) in the Clinton
administration, said that Bush's White House is, in many ways, simply
expanding on efforts begun in the previous administration.
"We had proposed, in the Clinton administration, tying performance to
budget, but there wasn't enough performance information to do that.
The Bush administration has that information, finally, so it's sort of
a natural progression," Kamensky said.
But critics worry that the review process gives the administration the
opportunity to establish its own measures of success for programs,
without taking into account the requirements established by Congress.
For example, OMB's review declared the Housing and Urban Development
Department's Community Development Block Grant program "ineffective,"
charging that its mission is unclear, it has few measures of success,
and it "does not effectively target funds to the most-needy
But a study by a National Academy of Public Administration panel in
February disputed OMB's assessment. The program's "statutory mission
or purpose seems clear," the panel said. As a block grant, CDBG is
able to fund a broad range of community-development functions, and "if
the CDBG program lacks clarity, it is likely because the statute
intended it so," according to the report. The breadth of the program's
activities makes it difficult to provide specific measures of success,
the panel concluded, and the White House suggestion that funding be
geographically targeted "seems to contradict the statute's intent."
Donald Plusquellic, mayor of Akron, Ohio, and president of the U.S.
Conference of Mayors, defends the CDBG program. "I can evaluate
anything as a failure if I get to set up the standards," he said.
Johnson acknowledges that CDBG fails the test in part because the
administration is applying a new definition of success. "We believe
the goal of housing programs is not just to build houses, but the
economic development that comes with them. So those are the results we
want to focus on," Johnson said. "You can say we are imposing our
political views on people, or our favored views of the housing world
or the CDBG world on people. Well, guilty as charged. It's important
to focus on outcomes, not outputs."
The president has proposed to eliminate the $4 billion block-grant
program and shift its functions into a new community and economic
development initiative in the Commerce Department. The Senate voted
66-32 last week for a budget amendment designed to block the
NYU's Light says the administration has instituted a host of other
procedures that centralize power in the White House, ranging from a
vetting process for political appointees that allows little
independent decision-making for Cabinet officials, to regular
conference calls between the White House and the agency chiefs of
staff that help to "focus [the staffers'] attention up Pennsylvania
Avenue to the White House, and away from down in your department."
But is that a bad thing? The Heritage Foundation's Moffit doesn't
think so. "Why would that be anything other than 100 percent
American?" Moffit asks. "I elected a president, and I expect the
president to run the executive branch of the government. And there is
an issue about whether he is? That's absurd."
The role of the civil service is "to make the car run," Moffit said.
"And if they have been driving the car east for the past 25 years of
their professional life, but the president says, 'Fine, I know you've
been going east, but now we're going to go west; you're going to do a
180-degree turn and go in exactly the opposite direction,' their job
is to make sure the car goes exactly in the opposite direction. Nobody
elected them to do anything else."
Roth of the American Federation of Government Employees disagrees.
"You do not entirely change your entire focus every time a president
is elected, because it is not the job of the president to pass the
laws. It is the job of the president to execute the laws," Roth said.
"These laws are on the books, these programs are in regulations." An
administration "can't just say, 'We don't like it, so don't do it.' "
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