Layer cake… The Department of Housing and Unbelievable Delays… God help the squeaky wheel

Layer cake

Much of this column will be devoted to a short course on how Washington really works, with special emphasis on truths that are not widely understood.

One of these truths emerged in a survey of government workers by Lisa Rein of the Washington Post, asking them for suggestions on how to cut fat from the budget. From an employee of the EPA, and one from the IRS, came the same answer.

EPA: “The layers of management are insane.… It takes 13 steps and five layers to get a signature from our office director.”

IRS: “Bottom line, there are way too many levels of management, too many meetings, too much duplication of effort, too many meetings about meetings.”

The IRS worker added: “We have too many [Washington] employees (many of them in higher paid brackets) and far too few in the field assisting taxpayers.”

All of this is true of mature government agencies. Career employees aspire to be chiefs, not Indians. Bureaucracies accommodate them by creating layers of authority, with secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, division directors, deputy division directors, section chiefs, deputy section chiefs, and so on. As a result, too much of an agency’s budget is consumed by the management and not enough by those who work in the field.

The Department of Housing and Unbelievable Delays

Another effect of the concentration of money and effort in Washington is that too little attention is paid to making sure that programs are effectively carried out in the field. This was recently illustrated by a long article in the Post about the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Seven hundred projects “have languished for decades or longer” because the department “does not track the pace of construction and often fails to spot defunct deals, instead trusting local agencies to police projects.”

God help the squeaky wheel

Sometimes agency heads don’t want to know what is going on down below because they fear they will be held responsible for fixing it, so they keep their fingers crossed that the bad news won’t emerge on their watch. But often the problem is that the people at the top know all too well what is going on, and are desperate to keep a lid on it. Take U.S. Air Marshal Robert MacLean, who revealed that his boss’s plan to reduce air marshal coverage on long-distance flights was to save money on hotel costs. He was fired. And consider the ordeal of Franz Gayl, described in this issue.

Thomas Drake is another public servant who lost his job for whistle-blowing, at the National Security Agency. Indeed, he has been indicted under the Espionage Act and threatened with thirty-five years in prison. His crimes: he told Siobhan Gorman, then a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, about management failures at the NSA, including its rejection of a computer program that would have protected the privacy of American citizens, called ThinThread, in favor of a more costly program that failed to protect citizens and was less effective against terrorists.

Drake is not some nut. The program he advocated was supported by several other highly regarded employees of the agency. He has been the subject of sympathetic portrayals by 60 Minutes and the New Yorker. And he is far from alone in accusing the NSA of mismanagement. Indeed, according to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, a study commissioned by Michael Hayden, the NSA head who presided over the programs that Drake called into question, concluded that the agency was “mired in bureaucratic conflict and suffering from poor leadership.” (The government has since abandoned the espionage charge and Drake has pled guilty to the misdemeanor of “unauthorized use of a government computer.”)

When obfuscation is a virtue …

Hayden demonstrated the kind of leadership he provided at the NSA with the following memo to his staff. Responding to dissension in the ranks over the abandonment of ThinThread, he complained that “individuals, in a session with our congressional overseers, took a position in direct opposition to one that we had corporately decided to follow. . . . Actions contrary to our decisions will have a serious adverse effect on our efforts to transform N.S.A., and I cannot tolerate them.”

If this strikes you as just a bit defensive, I share your reaction. Let me try to explain why so many government officials agree with Hayden.

One reason is that there are secrets worth keeping. Suppose a disgruntled official had leaked—and an anything-to-become-a-star reporter had revealed— the plan to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound before the raid could take place. Of course, it is also true that “confidential” or “secret” labels are all too often used to hide facts that may be embarrassing but that the public should know.

My job in the government was to rub the collective noses of my agency’s top officials in what they were doing wrong and why our programs in the field weren’t working. The agency was the Peace Corps, the time was the first seven years in the 1960s. Our glow of good intentions made it hard for outsiders to criticize. The result was highly favorable treatment by the press, which had the effect of making it even harder for the top officials to face my news that things weren’t quite as good as they seemed, with too many volunteers being sent to nonexistent or poorly defined jobs, without adequate training in the culture or language of the people they were sent to help.

I took great pride in telling the truth within the agency, even when I knew it would make me unpopular with the senior staff. However—and this is a big however—I felt a loyalty to the agency that made me very reluctant to expose our dirty laundry to outsiders. And those included not only the media but other arms of the government, including Congress, the Government Accounting Office, and the Office of Management and Budget.

I would not lie to these people, but I would studiously avoid volunteering any unpleasant facts about the Peace Corps, for fear that it might be used to hurt the agency I loved and was proud to serve. If they were planning to visit a Peace Corps program overseas, I would suggest one of our best. If they threatened to visit a program in trouble, such as ours in Brazil was for a time, I would remind them of the terrible humidity, the boa constrictors, and every other unwelcoming fact about the Amazon basin that I could come up with. At the same time, I would praise the salubrious climate, the lovely scenery, and the stunning herds of elephant, giraffe, and zebra they would see in Kenya, which just happened to have an outstanding Peace Corps program.

The benign attitude that the media showed toward the Peace Corps was shared by almost all Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress. Still, there were some who wanted to give us a hard time. But in hearings they rarely proved informed enough to ask the right question, and if they happened to stumble upon it, the right follow-up question almost never came. Even if it did, the questioner would soon have to leave the hearing for a quorum call or some other congressional business, or their time for questioning had expired.

… and when loyalty curdles

As long as we had frank internal self-evaluation, the Peace Corps could get by without informed outside critics. After the 1968 election, however, the Nixon administration abolished my office, and the loyal desire to protect the agency, left unchecked, ultimately led to the disgraceful concealment of the rapes of female volunteers that has recently come to light. At its worst, this desire to hide the bad news resulted in the agency’s helping a murderer go free. (See American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps, by Philip Weiss.)

As an agency matures, pride in its work as a motive for not revealing the bad news is accompanied or replaced by a concern for the agency’s budget. The one sure way any civil servant can lose his job is if his agency’s budget is cut. And so the survival imperative becomes a strong motive for avoiding excessive candor.

Asking the right questions

Today I can imagine that there is an even greater reluctance to disclose the bad news. The Republicans in Congress have become so automatically anti-government that they are almost certain to use any critical information to reduce or eliminate an agency’s effectiveness rather than to improve it.

This does not excuse control freaks like Michael Hayden, or the inanity, not to mention insanity, of indicting Thomas Drake for espionage. But I hope it does help explain why good people can feel obliged to conceal their agency’s difficulties, and why it becomes so important for White Houses, congressmen, and journalists who are truly concerned with better government to do enough homework to ask the right questions.

Who said “monster”?

Oddly enough, I think that Democrats in the 2012 election will have a similar problem with truth telling. It seems to me that their most likely road to success is to oppose any change in Medicare or Social Security and to wholeheartedly embrace the public employees unions that are among their major sources of funding and campaign workers.

For the conscientious among them, the challenge will be to find a way to tell the truth without sacrificing their electoral heads.

I had a recent experience in the difficulty of doing so. In our last issue, in the course of describing the selfishness and greed that had increasingly dominated this country in the last thirty years, I noted that the selfishness even extended to the non-greedy, giving as an example “those teachers who are more concerned with protecting their tenure than educating children.”

I then received an otherwise thoughtful letter from a reader who began, “Who are these monsters? If I were looking for a highly paid sinecure, it would not be in a classroom.”

Of course, I had not called anyone a monster, and I had specifically stated that I was talking about the non-greedy. And of course I was not describing all teachers— after all, my son is one—but only those “who are more concerned with protecting their tenure than educating children.”

Don’t be Mediscared

For Democrats who were not convinced by the 2010 election, in which Republicans exploited seniors’ anger over Obama’s attempt to rein in Medicare costs with the Affordable Care Act, the recent congressional election in upstate New York has probably clinched the case that any discussion of Medicare is hazardous to their political health. Yet I cling to the hope that a way can be found to raise issues like Medicare costs and teacher quality without immediately inviting reactions like that of my reader.

My hope is shared by two of the Monthly’s contributing editors who are now columnists—Joe Nocera of the New York Times and Matt Miller of the Washington Post—who have recently urged Democrats to face the problems with Medicare. But I think we critics have a responsibility to help find the magic combination of words that will enable politicians to grapple with the real issues while preserving some reasonable hope of winning an election.

The patient can suffer from more than one illness, you know

The cause of tenure reform, which seemed to be gaining traction with Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman, has recently become the subject of a strong counterattack led by Diane Ravitch. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have recently published pieces by her and others that question the wisdom of tenure reform. The argument these people emphasize—take, for example, “Five Myths about America’s Schools,” by Paul Farhi in the Post—is that there are many other problems, like poverty, that adversely affect the quality of education. Of course there are. But this does not mean that tenure itself is not a serious problem, keeping bad teachers in the classroom, absorbing too much of the education budget with their higher salaries, and, when budget cuts are necessary, requiring that talented young instructors be fired instead of their less competent elders.

The old boys still run the show

One of the oddest articles in this counterrevolution was a front-page piece by Sam Dillon of the New York Times, which seemed to find sinister— and, according to one source, “Orwellian”— purpose in Bill Gates’s support of grassroots advocacy “aimed at focusing the presidential candidates on issues like teacher quality and education standards,” or “revealing that existing evaluation systems tended to give higher ratings to all teachers,” or “arguing against seniority-based layoffs.”

Dillon’s fear is that Gates money will dominate the education debate. My fear is that, even with Gates money and a lot more, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the schools of education will continue to prevent any significant reform in public education. If you have any doubt about the power of these groups, read Joel Klein’s account of his attempts to effect reform in New York in the June Atlantic.

Stacked deck

To give you an idea of how the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the two Bushes have enabled the Republicans to dominate the federal judiciary, thirteen of the sixteen judges on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals—now in the news because of the NFL lockout case—were nominated by one of them.

The “election fraud” fraud

You have probably read about the Republican efforts to make it difficult for poor Democrats to vote. In order to register to vote, the people of Kansas, for example, are now required to prove they are citizens with a birth certificate or other document. Then when they go to the polls, they must produce a government-issued photo ID. These requirements are supposedly aimed at preventing fraud. But, as an editorial in the New York Times points out, “Kansas has had only one prosecution for voter fraud in the last six years,” and concludes, “because of that vast threat to democracy, an estimated 620,000 Kansas residents who lack a government ID now stand to lose their right to vote.”

You go to war with the war you have, not the war you want

The Pentagon is organized to plan a war, not fight a war, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently observed. This is gospel truth, and it is why billions of dollars have been wasted on weapons systems designed for wars that aren’t happening instead of the wars we have actually been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is why simple things like body armor and IED protection were so long neglected.

Stalled on stalls

In May the Federal Aviation Administration issued proposed rules requiring adequate crew training in how to handle engine stalls. The catch is—or, rather, the catches are—first, that they come more than two years after the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo that cost fifty lives because the pilots did not know how to deal with a stall; and second, that they are only “proposed,” with the final rule, according to Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, “still likely years away from taking effect.”

The reason is that the FAA is allowing the airlines time to comment. Now for what is totally infuriating: the FAA had already issued a version of the proposed rules in 2009, and the new proposed rules were announced only after the airlines had two years to comment and complain.

To sleep, perchance to crash a jetliner

I believe that most federal employees are generously compensated, taking into account their salaries plus pension and health benefits. But some crucial fieldworkers are underpaid. As we recently pointed out, this was certainly the case with oil rig inspectors in the former Minerals Management Agency. Now as we read about sleepy air traffic controllers in the press, we learn that the Bush administration cut their starting salary down to $30,000 in 2006 in some parts of the country. Controllers were moonlighting to supplement their income.

To accommodate underpaid controllers who needed time to work their second jobs and to promote long weekends for other controllers who were adequately paid, the FAA allowed them to set their schedule as follows: two evening shifts, followed by only eight hours off before a pair of day shifts, and then another quick turnaround leading to a midnight shift, giving the controller very long weekends that lasted from early Friday morning till late Monday afternoon.

It also was a schedule almost guaranteed to produce drowsiness in the control room. Now salaries are being raised—but the schedule is only being slightly amended, meaning, of course, that the hazard of sleepiness continues, which in turn means that the FAA has to use extra controllers to make sure someone is awake.

Prestige for rent

Magazines as respected as the Atlantic, in an understandable search for fiscal survival, have drifted into potentially dangerous relationships with corporate America. The problem is illustrated by recent issues of the New Republic and the New Yorker. After the New Republic had cosponsored a conference with the nuclear power industry, the inside front cover of its May 26th issue contained an ad for that industry featuring a photograph of the New Republic’s editor, implying that the magazine endorsed nuclear power. And after the New Yorker had cosponsored a conference with the University of Phoenix, that institution ran a four-page ad in the magazine flaunting the relationship. I was shocked. The University of Phoenix has been shown to be a business that finances itself with loans given to students it has enrolled without regard to their qualifications and who often prove unable to repay the loans, leaving the federal government, which had guaranteed them, holding the bag. It is well known that the admissions counselors for the university were paid on the basis of the number of students enrolled, without regard to the merits of the student.

Mainely wrong

The Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is removing the name of Frances Perkins from a state facility. For those too young to be offended, let me explain: Perkins, a Maine native who became the first woman to be named to a president’s cabinet, was a great secretary of labor in the 1930s and ’40s. She also wrote one of the most perceptive books about her boss, Franklin Roosevelt, called The Roosevelt I Knew.

The grass is greener—dangerously so

Of all the problems in the federal government, the one that worries me the most is the increasing number of public servants who look forward to cashing in by selling their expertise to corporations or lobbying firms who will give them cushy jobs when they leave government service. Far too often, their anticipation of this outcome leads them to curry favor from their future employers while they are still in government service. A recent example is Meredith Atwell Baker, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, who “criticized the FCC’s review of Comcast’s joint venture with NBC/Universal for taking too long,” reports Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post, “and voted in favor of the merger.”

In June, she got her reward: a nice job with Comcast.

The Securities and Exchange Commission requires that its former staff members file a statement if they plan to represent a client before the commission within two years of leaving. The Project on Government Oversight, headed by Danielle Brian, one of Washington’s savviest critics, has found that between 2006 and 2010, 219 former SEC employees filed 789 such statements. They were so eager to cash in that they couldn’t wait two years.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.