Monday, January 1, 2018

In praise of the honest bureaucrat.

People use the words "politician" and "bureaucrat" as insults.   Too bad for us.   

There is some good news this New Year's Day.  GOP effort to delegitimize the Mueller investigation is actually good for America, long term.   It is backfiring on them.  It isn't making politicians any more lovable, but it is helping assure the independence of the federal bureaucracies.

Darned politicians.   I get renewed insight into the low esteem afforded politicians while I talk with people about a potential run for the open state representative seat representing my home town of Medford, Oregon. The job is full time for 6 months of the year in Salem, 230 miles away.  Then it is part time for the remaining year and a half, with meetings up and down between Medford and Salem.  It pays $18,000 a year.  Citizens complain about the decisions they make, and the criticisms frequently go to presumed bad motives:
   He is just following party discipline.
   He is a puppet for his donors, or the Chamber of Commerce, or the teaches unions, or the trial lawyers, or the Koch Brothers.
   He is weak, or stupid, or corrupt, or selfish, or uncaring. Something bad.

So far I cannot find a Democrat who wants the job.  They aren't scared off by the prospect of losing the election. They don't want the job or the campaign to win it. They recognize both state parties are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars if there is a plausible chance of winning, and their campaign practice is primarily negative: nasty ads to depress enthusiasm for the opponent and drive up the "undervote."  Ugly, but it frequently works. No one believes positive ads, but they are quick to believe negative ones.

Meanwhile, those hated "government bureaucrats."   Oddly enough, there is some good news here.

The goal of White House and GOP officeholders in criticizing the Mueller investigation is transparent: to de-legitimize it.  They are calling it a "partisan witch hunt."  They are setting the foundation either for abruptly ending the investigation "for cause", or to have its results discounted by the public--unless it totally vindicates Trump.  On its surface this looks like the obvious politicization of the FBI investigation.

In fact, the opposite is happening.
Bureaucrats are employees tasked with following the rules of their employer or agency.  In government those rules are created openly, are accountable to higher authority and ultimately the public.  Bureaucrats don't get tips or presents. They are expected to be fair, impartial, non-partisan, and follow the rules.

Right now defenders of Trump are looking with a microscope at the FBI.  Can a person who privately thinks--as documented in a text message--that Trump was an "idiot" be trusted to investigate Trump?  FBI agents undoubtedly widely consider the people they investigate--drug smugglers, bank robbers, terrorists--to be bad people, maybe idiots, but here the GOP critics of the FBI are demanding that the FBI be exactly what Americans want it to be: strictly fair, strictly rule following, strictly bureaucratic, and above suspicion.  And indeed he was taken off the case months ago, before the GOP criticism.

Mueller wanted to avoid even the appearance of bias.

Stalled at 90% complete
Democrats are criticizing the GOP for their open criticism of the FBI, but Democrats should relax.  In the bigger picture, the GOP microscope is serving a good purpose.  By demanding that the federal bureaucracy be strictly honest and non-partisan they are sending a message that it is dangerous for a federal agency even to face suspicion of political bias.

That is good, both for Democrats and for the health of our Republic.  

The threat from Trump--or any future administration--is the politicization of the federal bureaucracy.  Trump has openly called for it, apparently less than fully aware that the agencies operate on rules, not simply orders from the top.  The EPA cannot ignore rules on pollution, nor the BLM simply decide to issue grazing permits, nor that Homeland Security ban certain travelers.  People can sue in the courts to demand the rules be followed.  

There is also a message to bureaucracies: You might be investigated for politicization, and they might be looking back many years.  This year it is the Republicans.  Next year, who knows. 

Last August this blog wrote about the opposite situation, corruption in a developing country, Vietnam.   Click Here: In praise of honest bureaucrats.  Corruption in the zoning and building process was revealed mid project on a skyscraper.  The right people hadn't been paid off--or perhaps were--which scared off the bank financiers of the project.  Vietnamese building inspectors and the local communist party leadership--like Mexican policemen--are notorious for being paid inadequately on the books by the government, so they operate with dual loyalties, getting paid in part by inducements from the person being regulated or policed.

That is a cautionary tale for America.  Civil service was established to end the corruption of the "spoils system" expanded under President Andrew Jackson.  Civil service was intended to end partisan government.  The GOP is strengthening that system.    

The opposite of "bureaucrat" is not good government.  The opposite is corruption.


Rick Millward said...

Integrity in institutions comes from the top down. Unfortunately we have a good deal of rot at the top, resulting in cynicism and apathy among voters, which is just fine with corrupt politicians. Congress' approval has been in the teens for years. Our political class considers itself royalty, with palace intrigue superseding governing.

Civil service should be honorable and coveted, and I think it's fair to say that on the whole Democrats do bring more respect to government.

Rich Fairbanks said...

I once ratted on a district ranger who had done a bad thing. I called a reporter friend about 10 a.m. the morning after i learned of the transgression. The reporter laughed, said 'Rich, three employees have already called me.' The employees knew right from wrong and took responsibilty to expose wrongdoing. Agencies, even agencies like the forest service, are held to account by the GS-3 clerk typist, the GS-9 forester, the people who know and respect the taxpayers. The federal employees work for America, not some befuddled ranger, or a punk like Trump.