- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

The professional bureaucrats never give up. There it was, buried under Part Two, Chapter Five "Options to Cut Nondefense Spending," beneath Function 920, "Allowances," of the recently published "Budget Options," issued by the Congressional Budget Office. The Part 920.01 recommendation was, "reduce the number of political appointees" and save $700 million. And it is just in time for the up-coming appropriations subcommittee hearings.
While the proposal purports to be a budget cut, the CBO bureaucrats cite studies by the National Commission on the Public Service and the Twentieth Century Fund as the sources for the recommendation. They do not mention that both reports were staffed with career bureaucrats and their public administration allies, who prefer that these high positions be held by themselves.
The $700 million in savings supposedly comes from a reduction in the number of political appointees from 2,800 to 2,200, over the next 10 years. Sen. Russell Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, has just introduced a bill to reduce this to 2,000. Say this would save $900 million. Come on, $90 million a year is called rounding error in government, not savings. Money is not the point. Since career appointees would fill these positions, not one job would be abolished and not one penny would be saved. The more sophisticated argument, made by Paul C. Light of Brookings, is that they should be cut because layers of political chiefs inhibit decision-making. Yet, by his own numbers, two-thirds of the chain of command are career appointees so why not start with them instead?
The No. 1 goal of the professional public administration community is to build the power of the "neutral," expert civil servant at the expense of the political appointees of the elected president. It is part of the progressive project to cast-out demon "politics" from government and to allow the expert elite to rule. The only difference now is that the Republican Congress, through its CBO, has become part of the project. Of course, it never has and never will succeed because politics is the heart of government. But that does not dull this misguided passion for neutral decision-making. Indeed, it could be argued that the very implausibility of success feeds the reform impulse. Its very impracticality is taken as the proof of the purity of its motivation.
The Twentieth Century Fund report claimed that, while career civil service ranks were being decimated, political appointments grew 17 percent since 1980. First of all, outside the defense arena, few career positions were cut and none were at the top. Moreover, before 1981, the official number of political appointees were underreported because many served under career appointment categories. President Jimmy Carter stopped the practice then and correctly labeled them. So, it only appears that the number of politicals increased. They were just brought out in the open. If the number is suppressed by legislation, they will only go underground once again.
For one to prefer career appointees to political ones is an academically acceptable position. That expert, professional administrators can solve all domestic problems was, in fact, the underlying presumption of the progressive welfare state. Yet, with government planning in its death throes, it is difficult to make the case directly. So, the plan is sneaked through the back door as a budget reduction. With public cynicism that government solutions cannot work at a high point, it makes more sense to pretend reform will save money.
The presumption of the American Founders was that politics was to government as air was to fire. While fire can be dangerous, it is essential to living. Suppressing air will extinguish fire, but it will also extinguish breathing. Extinguishing politics to cleanse government is just as foolish as eliminating air to control fire. Politics is perilous too, but it is essential to popular control of government. Republicans should be opposing the foolish and dangerous doctrine that politics, which only is human nature writ large, can be eliminated in government. Ignorance of human nature is just what made progressivism fail.
The mystery is why a Republican budget office is proposing this progressive reform. Apparently, however, someone there is trying. A paragraph was added last year giving "critics" of reform their side of the story: that political appointees are essential if the president is to establish control over the bureaucracy, if some connection is to be established within agencies between the electorate and the bureaucracy, and if fresh perspectives are to be brought from outside the ivory tower bureaucracy. Republican congressional control seems to allow the Founders position to be heard, even if the actual recommendations remain liberal.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.


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