Incompetence is Golden: The Conservatives’ Mantra
By RAWLEIN G. SOBERANO, Ph.D.
(March 23, 2010) – When President Reagan took office in 1981, his special assistant Morton Blackwell described the difficulty of building a conservative government: you could either fill positions with people who were competent to do the job but were politically unsound or fill them with movement types who were in the dark about the actual job to be done.There were only a handful which had both the expertise and commitment to conservatism. Three years later, it was made abundantly clear by Grover Norquist that competence was not needed at all, or was only secondary at best. He was more concerned about the tactics of seizing and building power which he got straight from Josef Stalin’s playbook.
The Reagan administration placed one of its most reliable soldiers in charge of federal personnel, a former YAF (Donald Divine) who launched an all-out effort to beat the bureaucracy into submission. Conservatives fought bitter battles to take over insignificant positions from members of the hated moderate faction. Serious conservatives across the country sent their most loyal charges to become credentialed members of the city’s ruling class. The supreme player in all this was the Heritage Foundation which boasted it could provide the administra- tion a conservative from its files to fit any special need. During GWB’s administration, the Green Zone in Iraq swarmed with young appointees who had one thing in common: they sent their resume’s to Heritage.
Monica Goodling was at the center of the storm during the 2007 DOJ scandal. When the world learned that she was a graduate of a no-name law school (Pat Robertson’s Regent U), a novice lawyer who helped fire nine experienced US Attorneys for nothing more than the basest partisanship. She capriciously and habitually vetoed other supposedly nonpartisan federal hires on suspicion of being “liberal,” and kept a tote board tracking who was and who was not a member of the right-wing Federalist Society. At the height of her power, there were over 150 other Regent graduates working for GWB’s administration as well as several others who were graduates of Patrick Henry College, a fanatic factory that supplied the conservative movement with functionaries.
The Reagan administration rode to power by casting aspersion on the federal system. Its principals regarded the government of nonpolitical or career civil service as hopelessly liberal and implacably hostile. The assault began in earnest in the first days of the administration, with the New Right demanding jobs for wingers and shrieking every time a moderate Republican got an important position. The politicization of government operations was unprecedented, with loyalists in and career civil servants out. By summer of 1981, 59% of sub-cabinet appointees confirmed by the Senate had no experience in government as did 78% of hires at independent agencies and a full 100% at independent regulatory agencies. The most politicized office was Office of Management & Budget that began producing laughably optimistic budget projections, insisting surpluses were just around the corner despite world-record deficits everyone knew the administration was responsible for.
Morale was so bad that by 1984 a full 72% of senior public servants responded to a poll that they would not encourage their children to take a career in public service. Convinced that civil servants were the Left, it defunded them. There were rumors of a brain drain from important agencies. Bill Clinton did little to ward off attacks on the civil service. Instead, he joined in, posing with huge, sinister volumes of federal rules and declaring his own war on the bureaucracy and red tape. The Democratic Congress passed a law that required federal wages to be brought on par with the private sector. Finding a loophole, he offered only the tiniest raises for federal workers, reviving the methods by which pay gap was calculated, hoping the problem would go away in a puff of theoretical smoke.
The Clinton administration spoke of entrepreneurial government and they huddled with the nation’s leading management theorists to figure out how to deliver it. Their answer was expected: downsizing and outsourcing, hidden in a fog of fake existentialism. Then came GWB who promised to bring the “management revolution” to Washington. The Heritage Foundation provided a blueprint to guide the president’s attack on the civil service. It brought back the Reagan-style politicization of the agencies, with wingers advancing powerfully on all the old battlefronts, e.g., DOJ, EPA, privatization and outsourcing (under the guise of competition).
Contractors (up to 250k who are paid more) have become the 4th branch of government. They sat with federal employees at every agency; far more work under contract that was directly employed by government. In reality, the conservatives’ outsourcing system has been a rip-off of such great proportion that it deserves a report like the Grace Commission (or something similar) all its own. The Bush administration will be remembered for opening the spigots of Treasury to squeeze billions into outsourced operations. They even boasted that the government achieved its lowest level of civilian payroll since 1950. The incompetence reflected the strategy of a philosophy toward to role of government and the people in it. That philosophy can be seen in FEMA which assigned only one person in New Orleans before Katrina. It was intended to make the agency look bad and withdraw public support for it. Poor “Brownie” (Michael Brown); he was set up to be the fall guy. HUD’s former secretary put it eloquently that contracts were awarded to friends who manifested their support through campaign contributions. Under the GOP the government was for sale.
Rawlein G. Soberano, Ph.D. is the President of the Asian American Business Roundtable. www.aabronline.org ο