A strong case can be made that the real government of the United States is not the Congress, not the president, not the courts, not the Constitution, but the federal bureaucracy.
The term “big government” in effect means more responsibilities for federal employees, who make up the federal bureaucracy. Their job is to interpret and enforce laws enacted by Congress. The regulations developed by the bureaucracy are published in the Federal Register for comment before going into effect. In 2013 the pages of the Federal Register ran 80,000-plus pages.
The results of the comments and final decisions of the various departments of the federal government are published in the Code of Federal Regulations, which runs 20,000 pages. These regulations have the force of law unless struck down by the courts, which rarely happens. The United States Code (of laws) fills 35 volumes with about 45,000 words (up from 400 pages when first published in 1913), of which Obamacare claims 13,000 and counting. Then there is the United Sates Tax Code which is 73,954 pages.
So, our friends in the bureaucracy have been busy. Since 2001, they have issued 4,680 changes of regulations, in addition to processing the new laws passed by Congress and signed by the president. As long as Congress keeps passing more laws and not repealing any, however, this job will continue to expand.
There are many dedicated and apolitical federal workers, and I personally know many of them. However, in the larger view, it is obvious that the federal workforce generally agrees profoundly with the philosophical preference for an activist, big government and therefore votes overwhelmingly Democrat.
The reasons are obvious. For one thing, any attempt to limit the size and power of government works against the vested interest of the government workforce, because it threatens their power, not to mention their income and pensions. And power seems to be the controlling motivation for senior bureaucrats’ competition with each other. Bureaucratic power is manifested by the size of the budget and the workforce under one’s control. With power comes prestige, influence on policy, recognition by peers as an important person, and increasing ability to choose winners and losers among colleagues.
These motivational impulses are not specific to government employees. With the addition of financial competition, they apply equally to any large organization, whether business, military, academic, or athletic. What is unique to government bureaucracy is the impact their ambitions have on all of us. The more money they spend on staff, bonuses, and budgets, the more tax money they require. And that tax money comes from us, the taxpayers.
Recent examples of the bureaucracy’s power gone astray abound — the IRS’ persecution of the Democrats’ political opponents, and the obvious arrogance of the regulatory agencies — from the Justice Department refusing to enforce certain laws, to the Energy Department deciding that coal mines should be closed, to the Environmental Protection Agency letting sweetheart contracts to Democratic donors with unproven technology companies, to the National Security Agency spying on American citizens, to the Veterans Administration manipulating veterans’ health needs for their own benefit.
Power is the name of the game.
It seems obvious that the bureaucracy as a whole favors the Democrats. However, this bias does not have its basis in the positions and personalities of the Democratic Party. Rather, it derives from a confluence of goals. The Democrats want big government, and so does the bureaucracy. But it is also true that government has continued its massive advance under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The Constitution places the power of the purse not under the president but under the Congress. The practical effect of this structure is that Congress is responsible for the bureaucracy, because the bureaucracy actually spends the money Congress appropriates. It is therefore up to the Congress to control the bureaucracy. How can they do that?
The only answer that makes any sense is to control the budgets of the bureaucracy. But the scrutiny of departmental budgets must be far, far more detailed than just the cursory examinations, mostly of overall percentage of increases, than are routinely done today. The departmental budgets are so complex and detailed that bureaucrats can disguise and even hide almost any expenses they wish. Congress for the most part has delegated the detailed examination of each budget request to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the bureaucracy itself. This is too much like the fox guarding the henhouse. The proof is the spiraling cost of government over the past two generations, no matter which party is in power.
There is only one way to truly reduce federal spending and the growth of the bureaucracy. The appropriate committees of Congress must go through every line item of the federal budget. Clearly the federal budget today is too large and too complicated for any few people to master. However, 535 members of Congress and their staffs should be able to do the job. They can always bring in outside help if they need it, starting with the Congressional Budget Office.
This strict congressional oversight of the bureaucracy is absolutely critical to maintaining the balance of powers in our government. Otherwise, the bureaucracy will continue to steadily increase the size and power of the government. With no limitations on its powers, the bureauracy has succeeded already and has arguably become the fourth branch of the government — the unelected and largely unknown branch.
We are seeing glaring examples of bureaucratic power in this administration, when time after time the bureaucracy does something controversial, and its nominal boss, the president, finds out about it from the news. President Obama is blamed by his political opponents for not knowing about these issues before they ever break in the press. Perhaps that is true and possible, but it is understandable that the White House does not know on any given day everything an arrogant and supremely confident bureaucracy consisting of 2.7 million employees plus an estimated 6.9 million contractors and grantees does or intends to do.
Only the Congress has both the mandate of oversight and the resources to do the job. The inflationary cycle America has been in for most of the past 50 years has been caused primarily the failures of Congress.
A dramatic example of the lack of congressional supervision of the bureaucracy is the periodic battles over raising the federal debt ceiling. The threat of refusing to raise the national debt to pay for obligations already incurred is absurd on the face of it. Everyone knows that the U.S. cannot afford to renege on its debts. The resulting default would lead to the fall of the dollar and resulting catastrophic inflation, possibly even the destruction of the international monetary system. And everybody knows it.
The time to trim government spending is before the funds are spent, not after. Much cost reduction can and should be done on a nonpartisan basis. This means refraining from tampering with entitlements. Entitlement reform is necessary, but it isn’t going to be done while the Democrats are so dead set against it. Nobody, however, is against eliminating waste and abuse.
With all the scandals of the current administration fresh in the minds of the nation, this is a very good time for Congress to initiate the scrubbing process. Certainly neither the Justice Department, the State Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Security Agency, Homeland Security, the Veterans Administration, nor Health and Human Services, among others, is in any position to seek popular support against a budget blitz by the appropriate congressional committees. This is a task which would have a real — and undoubtedly popular — work product, unlike many of the tasks which have been occupying Congress in recent years.
Most important , it is the only way to control the fourth branch of government.