Paul Light, the Brookings Institutions public administration scholar, asks many of the right questions about political appointees and the various layers of government. But he doesnt always come up with the right answers.
In a variety of reports, articles and, most notably, his book “Thickening Government,” Mr. Light correctly observes that the wheels of government turn too slowly and cost too much. But he wrongly blames it on too many political appointments and too many layers within departments. And he attributes much of this problem to “empire building” by ambitious managers in the civil service and among the political appointees. In fact, the number of political appointees has risen largely because the amount of political work has grown substantially. And the various layers of government Mr. Light decries signal more that civil service compensation needs reform than that executives are building empires.
The exponential growth of the federal government and the related growth in the number of lobbying groups and the number of journalists who focus on Washington has led to jumps in political staffing, particularly in Congress. As Mr. Light points out, one can find as many as 50 layers in some operations of the federal government between the president and the lowest-level bureaucrats.
And yes, the number of deputies serving assistant Cabinet secretaries has grown from an average of 1.4 in the 1960s to 5.8 in the 1990s. But during that same period, the numbers of U.S. House staffers more than tripled and Senate staffs nearly quadrupled in size.
But this isnt a case of simple bloat. New levels have been created for civil service workers so their agencies can offer them more competitive salaries and keep them from going into often better-paying private sector jobs. Without this additional layering, civil service attorneys, for example, who could earn big corporate salaries outside of government would be maxed out at a $60,000 pay grade. To eliminate these layers would drive many of our highest-skilled, most experienced civil servants out of government. Is that really what good government advocates desire?
A better policy would be to reform the governments outdated pay-setting process with a real market-based system.
As for political appointees, how much empire-building can be going on if they still account for only 0.2 percent of the federal work force, or just 3,000 out of 1.7 million?
Besides, they dont just sit around with nothing to do. They must deal directly with Congress as well as Washingtons special interest groups, which have tripled in number over the last 30 years. They handle huge increases in demands for information from those groups and must respond to the growing congressional staffs and a niche-driven press corps.
Not surprisingly, surveys by the National Academy of Public Administration suggest political appointees work under far more stress these days. About 65 percent of President Lyndon Johnsons political appointees reported they worked more than 60 hours a week. By the time of the Reagan administration, that figure had climbed to 77 percent. And while career civil servants may gather the information to meet the information requests, they show a reasonable reluctance to work with the press and interest groups on partisan issues, which leaves those duties in the rightful hands of political appointees. Civil servants are supposed to be politically neutral in their dealings, and they must maintain this to keep their jobs through often-dramatic changes in Washingtons political climate.
This is why sensitive staff work, including external dealings with powerful interest groups and the press, should be done by political appointees who “speak the same language” as both the interest groups in search of information and the president for whom the appointee works.”
At the Heritage Foundation, we have long maintained that “personnel is policy.” Presidents should be able to appoint the number of people they deem appropriate a position that Mr. Light says proves Heritage is on “the wrong side of the prevailing wisdom,” and, in this case, on “the same side” the Clinton administration was. Hes right. Heritage strongly backed President Clinton in 1994 when Republicans in Congress wrongly attempted to curtail his political appointments, and we continue to back the right of any president, Democrat or Republican, to appoint his own people.
Political appointees are essential to effective government. Those who want to cut the number of political appointees must be prepared to cut the size of government. Otherwise, well be left with an ever-expanding tribe of bureaucratic Indians ranging far and wide without direction from their presidentially appointed Chiefs. In a democratic order, government is to be accountable to the governed.
Robert Maranto teaches political science at Villanova University, and Robert Moffit is director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.