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How Washington really works.

Why surviving in D.C. is more about going through the motions than actually doing something

A few days after Bill Clinton's victory in November, I happened to be on a television talk show with one of the bright young members of the president-elect's transition staff. His excitement and dedication were transparent and touching. But I was troubled by his confidence, bordering on arrogance, and the sense he conveyed that he and his colleagues were too smart to be taken in by Washington. I remembered that I had felt the same way when I came to Washington to work under John Kennedy in 1961. One reason for this article is to warn other similarly innocent and overconfident newcomers of the things I hadn't known and later wished I had known when I started out in this city.

There are some other members of the Clinton team for whom excessive innocence is clearly not the problem. But even seasoned veterans of the Washington scene usually know only the trade secrets of life in the branch in which they serve. Mutual ignorance of one another's world is often embarrassingly obvious, as when an executive branch witness testifies before Congress. So this article is intended to help the congressman understand the questions he should ask the executive branch, to give the witness an understanding of the pressures on the congressman, and to make each side aware of the games the other is playing.

Lastly, this is intended to help the permanent outsider--the Mr. Smith who never comes to Washington--understand that most of what our government appears to do is make-believe carried on for the benefit of those in office. The present system is designed to protect those within it, not to serve those outside. I hope this article will make the Mr. Smiths want to change it. Even if Bill Clinton has the best intentions in the world, he is going to need the strong support of the people to bring about genuine change.

Although this piece may sound cynical to many, I sincerely believe that the system can be changed. For anybody of my generation, it's necessary only to think back to the early months of our involvement in World War II to realize how dramatically government's performance can improve. Our triumph at Midway in 1942, one of the greatest naval victories in the history of the world, came just six months after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, a tragedy that demonstrated how abysmally inefficient and oblivious to reality government at its worst can be.

Unfortunately, in recent years our system has too often functioned as it did at Pearl Harbor. I want to see more Midways in the wars against hunger, disease, ignorance, injustice and war itself, as well as in the military battles we may be unable to avoid. And I know the Midways will happen only if we learn the lessons of the Pearl Harbors.

Media botch

The first key to understanding Washington is "make-believe." Washington is like the Winter Palace under Nicholas and Alexandra, where earnest discussion about the lot of the poor went on continually but was seldom accompanied by effective action. In Washington, bureaucrats confer, the president proclaims, and Congress legislates, but the effect on reality is usually negligible if evident at all. The nation's problems don't disappear, and all the activity that is supposedly dedicated to their solution turns out to be make-believe.

All too often the press, instead of exposing this make-believe, is part of the show. It dutifully covers the apparent action--the announcement of programs, the enactment of legislation--rather than finding out how the programs are executed and the legislation is implemented or what the government is not doing about crucial problems.

Suppose, for example, a mine safety bill is being considered by Congress. There is little possibility that the press, even C-Span, will cover the committee hearings. What will probably happen is there will be little or no coverage until the bill's passage is near, when there might be a story briefly summarizing the positions of the bill's advocates and opponents and appraising the likelihood of passage. When the bill is passed, a reporter may appear on the evening news, standing on the steps of the Capitol and solemnly intoning, "Today, Congress passed the Mine Safety Act of 1992." But all this denotes is the appearance of action. Nothing has yet happened in the mines. And it is almost certain that no reporter will go down into the mines to find out if anything ever does. Thus, the reality of what happened, whether the bill made the mines more or less safe, will not be investigated or reported--until there is a major mine disaster somewhere in Appalachia. Readers who doubt this scenario might consider what happened when the savings and loans were deregulated during the eighties. Can they recall any of the national press visiting individual S&Ls to find out what was going on?

There is no better example of journalism as part of the show than the press conference. The appearance is adversarial--tough reporters asking tough questions. The reality is far different. "We tried to identify people to ask softball questions," writes Ronald Reagan's press aide, Larry Speakes, in his book Speaking Out. And Reagan, instead of giving spontaneous answers to those questions, was prepped by his staff to reply in the way least likely to give political offense.

Until 1992, when the recession could no longer be ignored, George Bush was very successful at keeping the topics raised at his press conferences confined to foreign policy--a subject he felt far more comfortable with than domestic issues. According to a study conducted by The Washington Manthly's James Bennet, fully two thirds of the questions asked at presidential press conferences between January 1989 and September 1991 were about foreign affairs. Amazingly, this tally excluded conferences devoted to the Gulf war where questions about foreign policy would have been expected to dominate. During the same period, Bush answered only four questions about AIDS and only two questions about the dozens of bank failures.

One reason press conferences are so tame is the "beat" system, under which reporters are assigned regularly to the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department, and other agencies. Preoccupied with keeping up with the daily flow of news provided by officials, and anxious not to offend these sources lest he be cut out of the stories given to his competitors, the average beat reporter seldom has the time or inclination to delve into what's really going on behind the scenes.

Every high official has a press secretary or public information officer, who, in turn, often has his own platoon--and sometimes army---of assistants. All these people constantly feed reporters the news they want them to get. They issue a press release almost every day to make sure reporters are aware of whatever their bosses have said or done that can be made to look good. And they coddle reporters in a warm cocoon of perquisites.

The White House even arranges for reporters' families to tag along on presidential trips--at one third to one half the cost of ordinary fares--to places like Santa Barbara and Kennebunkport. The reporters' part of the bargain is to participate in the make-believe that real news is being made in these places rather than just routine statements between rounds of golf.

During the Gulf war, reporters were housed in luxury hotels like the five-star Dharan International, where the poolside area near the TV cameras was called "Little Hollywood." (Those blue domes you saw in the background were not mosques but cabanas.) Some tried to break out of their pleasant prison but most were willing to settle into the comfortable routine of being spoon-fed at daily briefings.

Beaten reporters

People who have reached the top levels of government have usually attained their positions at least partly through their skill in handling journalists. They know how to make themselves look good and they also know how to divert attention from the less flattering stories. Reporters who become dependent on those officials, as most do, simply don't get the truth about what is wrong. The most spectacular example is the case of the White House press corps during the unfolding of the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals. Not one of the scores of journalists assigned to full-time coverage of the White House played any part in breaking these stories. They had been spoon-fed for so long that they had lost the habit of independent inquiry.

The men who got the Watergate story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, did so not by asking questions of the White House press office, but of personal secretaries and middle-level executives, like Hugh Sloan, the assistant treasurer of the Committee to Re-elect the President.

Similarly, in the case of the Challenger disaster, the people who could have blown the whistle if reporters had asked were middle-level officials, like Richard Cook at NASA and Allan McDonald of Thiokol, who saw the danger but were ignored by both their bosses and the press.

Just as guilty as beat reporters are the powerful syndicated columnists, who are particularly susceptible to being conned by their important sources. Because they have to turn out several columns a week, they have little time to piece together stories from dozens of interviews. Talking to a few top officials who supposedly know the whole story is therefore irresistibly appealing. (When Tom Braden was embarking on his career as a Washington columnist, one of the reigning journalistic eminences of the era, Stewart Alsop, advised him to be sure to talk to three important people each day.)

The trap for a journalist is that he becomes obligated to protect his source. The more access he is given, the harder it is to criticize--at least until the source's star begins to decline. As a veteran Washington journalist once put it, "We will give immunity to a very good source as long as the information he offers us is better than what we have on him." Michael Deaver is a prime example of how this works. While he was in the Reagan White House and regularly leaking stories to his favorite reporters--namely Lou Cannon of The Washington Post and Laurence Barrett of Time--scarcely a bad word was said about him in either publication. But once he resigned and went into public relations, he became fair game and many unfavorable stories about him appeared in both.

James Baker's protected status as a favorite source was illustrated by the story of the $2.9 million worth of stock he held in the Chemical National Bank, which he did not disclose while, as secretary of the Treasury in Reagan's second term, he was making decisions favoring major banks like Chemical. If a Bert Lance or Ed Meese had been guilty of the same thing, editorials demanding his head would have appeared, followed by a congressional investigation and the appointment of a special prosecutor. But when word of Baker's holdings finally got out in early 1989, there was hardly a murmur from the reporters, who were so dependent on him that they could not face losing the leaks he provided.

Reporters have good reason to fear the anger of good sources. When Larry Speakes was upset by an item in a Washington Times gossip column alleging that Nancy Reagan wanted to get rid of him, he ostracized Jeremiah O'Leary, the paper's White House correspondent, until the editor of the Times informed him that the columnist's contract was not being renewed.

By 1985, a historic development in the Washington press corps was clear enough for Charlotte Hays and Jonathan Rowe to describe in an article in this magazine called "Reporters: The New Washington Elite." Woodward and Bernstein had already given journalism glamour and status with the Watergate story. Then television conferred superstardom on "60 Minutes" reporters and on the panelists on various discussion shows. There was something good about the recognition accorded the hard digging that Woodward and Bernstein and the "60 Minutes" people had done. But when the panel show pontificators became celebrities, commanding huge fees on the lecture circuit, something very bad happened to journalism. As John Herbers, an editor at Governing magazine and for many years a Washington correspondent for The New York Times put it, "The prevailing orientation of Washington journalists began to change from populist, working middle class to morteyed elite."

The result of this change, says Hodding Carter, a columnist for The Wail Street Journal, is that:

The top journalists move in packs with the affluent and powerful in Washington. They swarm with them in the summer to every agreeable spot on the Eastern seaboard. When any three or four of them sit down together on a television talk show, it is not difficult to remember that the least well paid of these pontificators make at least six times more each year than the average American family. The truth is that there is not a hell of a lot of tolerance or empathy among the leading figures of national journalism for outsiders, losers, nonconformists, or seriously provocative political figures or causes.

The thinking done by today's journalists is thus unlikely to err on the side of originality. There is, in fact, a considerable amount of intellectual insecurity in the press room. Reporters are often reluctant to examine substantive issues. If they do, they instinctively embrace the conventional wisdom. But they really prefer reporting the horse-race aspects of politics to dealing with candidates' positions. If forced to deal with issues, they will quote experts.

The discipline that journalists have been most diffident about is economics. Their ignorance of economics is so great that even one of the more intelligent TV reporters, Ted Koppel, devoted only six out of 1,850 of his shows to the deficit during the eighties when it was growing by $1.6 trillion.

But even when reporters understand an issue, they often look in the wrong place; that is, they look for scandalous illegality when they should be looking into why government doesn't work. What's wrong with government today seldom has much to do with law-breaking, but lies instead in the cultures of the bureaucracy, Congress, the White House, and the judiciary-that is, in the customs and rituals and pressures that govern conduct in these institutions. The average reporter is remarkably ignorant of these cultures.

Access to grind

One culture that the press has paid more attention to in recent years, but which still remains woefully under-covered, is that of lobbyists. The popular conception of a lobbyist is someone who passes money under the table, arranges for clandestine midnight assignations, or holds the threat of blackmail not very high over an official's head. In fact, much of the activity that falls within the broad definition of lobbying is not evil or even underhanded. For example, the simplest and most obvious of lobbying techniques is personal friendship.

Consider Philip Morris, which shrewdly hires lobbyists from the hometowns of congressmen. The Philip Morris lobbyist in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, happens to be a longtime friend of South Dakota Senator Thomas Daschle, who, as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, could vote against taxes on tobacco.

Lobbying friendships can also stem from mutual membership in Washington clubs like Burning Tree (golf) or the Metropolitan (lunch). Burning Tree forbids lobbying on its premises, but the friendships formed there have been central to many a lobbyist's success. Charls (yes, that is how he spells it) Walker, one of the most successful corporate lobbyists of the seventies and eighties, plays a lot of golf at Burning Tree. If you are a former congressman, belonging to the club of present and former Members gives you an actual physical advantage in the access race: The floor of the House and Senate and legislators' private dining rooms are open to former Members and no other lobbyists.

Why is access so vital? Mostly because it ensures survival. And that is what almost everyone in government is primarily concerned with, whether he works on Capitol Hill or in the bureaucracy. He wants to remain here or in what the city symbolizes --some form of public power. So, from the day he arrives in Washington he is busy building networks of people who will ensure his survival in power. The smart lobbyist knows he must build networks not only for himself but for those officials he tries to influence. Every time the lobbyist meets an official whose help he needs, he tries to let him know--in the most subtle ways possible--that he can be an important part of that official's survival network.

Most of the best lobbyists are former high government officials--ex-congressmen, ex-White House staff members, ex-Cabinet officers, and ex-assistant secretaries. They usually entered public service with no thought of later turning it to their own advantage, and most at first probably planned to return home after their government service ended. But when actually faced with the prospect of going back, they discover that they now think of Washington as home. Their friends are here; their children are in local schools; they own houses in the area. Above all, they are hooked on the sense of excitement, of being at the center of events. They want to stay in that world, but have only one really marketable skill that can allow them to remain--their knowledge of government. So they become lobbyists. Their friends who are still in government realize that the same thing may eventually happen to them, and they take care to be considerate when the lobbyists come calling.

Although it is a by-product of the survival instinct, this empathy is genuine. It tightens and reinforces the bonds of everyone's network so that, as Nicholas Lemann observed in this magazine, "although Washington is supposed to be a city where power is carefully balanced between groups with contradictory interests, in fact it's a place with a strong sense of shared enterprise, a place where every person you deal with is someone who is either helping you survive now or might conceivably later on."

Access and friendship are also effective because government officials are basically decent people who want to be nice and to be liked. Faced with a living, breathing fellow human being who wants something very much, and with perhaps only an abstract argument on the other side, the natural reaction is to be obliging.

Of course, the occasional favor doesn't hurt, either. While most are innocent enough--say, taking someone to lunch-others are more insidious. Common examples of not-so-innocent favors include free trips to hunting lodges and conventions in places like Honolulu. During the eighties, for example, Senator Robert Dole paid the equivalent of only one first-class airfare each time he used chartered corporate jets belonging to General Mills, Warner-Lambert, and Metropolitan Life. There may have been no quid pro quo but Dole did appear to repay U.S. Tobacco Corporation for the use of its Gulfstream jet by supporting the tobacco subsidy program and opposing higher taxes on tobacco products.

There is another way of obtaining gratitude. Tommy Boggs, a Washington lawyer--who has lobbied on behalf of such clients as Chrysler, General Motors, and BCCI and who, until recently, employed the new Commerce secretary, Ron Brown--did some free lobbying for the Carter administration on the Panama Canal treaty and SALT II. Such activity, needless to say, created a receptive climate for Boggs when his paying clients needed help at the White House. "I work with him all the time," said Anne Wexler when she was an assistant to President Carter. "If he comes in on behalf of a client, it's my responsibility to put him [in touch] with someone he needs." (Wexler herself later became a lobbyist.)

Inert masses

When people like Anne Wexler put their clients in touch with the "right" person, quite often that someone tums out not to be a high profile secretary of this or that but a civil servant. The largest part of the permanent government, the bureaucracy, has about 3 million federal civilian employees. Six times that number are funded by taxpayers as employees of state, county, and municipal governments or as members of the military.

Some bureaucrats, of course, do essential work. But there is an equal number whose contribution to the public interest is less clear. Consider, for example, the 5,000 personnel managers and 1,500 public information and public relations specialists who work for the Pentagon or employees with such titles (all of them real) as Planning Analyst, Schemes Routing Specialist, Manager of Creative Services, Social Priorities Specialists, Suggestions Awards Administrator, Fringe Benefit Specialist, and Confidential Assistant to the Confidential Assistant.

But even if these people are less than essential, they have little need to fear for their jobs. About the only way a civil servant can lose his job is through a budget cut that affects his program. Therefore, since his survival depends on avoiding such cuts, the most important part of his job is to hide unhappy truths about his agency's performance from potential troublemakers such as the Office of Management and Budget and Congress. Justifying and protecting the agency's budget (as opposed to fulfilling the mission of the agency) soon becomes top priority. And that, of course, affects the way an agency does the job it was created to do. One year, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) began to single out middle-income taxpayers, who historically have the best record of paying their taxes honestly, for a disproportionately large share of audits. Why? Congress had granted the IRS more auditors on the condition that they be used to increase the number of audits. The IRS chose to perform middie-income audits because such audits are quicker to do than, say, a full-dress study of Mobil Oil.

One of the most notorious results of the fear of budget cuts is the end-of-the-year spending spree. As the midnight hour of the last day of September approaches, each agency desperately tries to use up all its appropriated funds for the year so it won't appear to have been over budgeted. Agencies have become so sophisticated in budget building techniques that it's not uncommon for bureaucrats to underestimate their funding needs when creating the budgets. They do so, however, only for popular programs which require fixed payments to qualified recipients. If the program runs short of money during the fiscal year, Congress must pass what is called a supplemental appropriation to take care of the shortfall, or face a lot of angry constituents.

A variation of this ploy is so clever that it often works even when the OMB recognizes it. I call it the Firemen First Principle. The basic idea is that when faced with a budget cut, the bureaucrat translates it into bad news for members of Congress who are powerful enough to restore the amount eliminated. In other words, he chops where it will hurt constituents the most, not the least. Amtrak provided one example on how to play the game. Once, when it was threatened with a budget cut, it immediately announced that it would have to stop the following routes:

* San Francisco-Bakersfield, running through Stockton, the hometown of the chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee;

* St. Louis-Laredo, running through Little Rock, Arkansas, the hometown of the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; and

* Chicago-Seattle, running through the hometowns of the Senate majority leader and of the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Memoranda and meetings are where the survival and make-believe principles merge. Bureaucrats write memoranda both because they appear to be busy when they are writing and because the memos, once written, immediately become proof that they were busy. They attend meetings for the same reason. Indeed, most bureaucrats make a big production of rushing off to meetings; meaningful action is seldom taken but the appearance of action is satisfied by the fact that the meeting was held.

Naturally, the most favored meetings involve travel. Here's an example from the travel record of the District of Columbia's Department of Human Resources and Education for one fiscal year. The Department of Human Resources sent 15 employees to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association and nine employees to Honolulu to attend a convention of the American Psychiatric Association. It also sent one administrator to Aspen, Colorado, for 39 days to attend a session entitled "Effective Strategies for Change." But his record was eclipsed by another official, the administrator for the Mental Health Administration, who managed to stay on the road for 51 days.

The bureaucrat's yearning to see the world is so powerful that even officials of agencies with exclusively domestic responsibilities manage to find conferences and meetings to attend abroad at taxpayers' expense. Thus, Daniel Oliver of the Federal Trade Commission managed to spend 95 days abroad in the period 1986-88, visiting such cities as Nassau, Geneva, Berlin, Tokyo, and that hotbed of anti-trust activity, Acapulco.

Grade expectations

What would happen if we called the bureaucrat's bluff and cut his budget? Unless he thinks we know about the real fat, about those trips to Acapulco, he may--to preserve his credibility--actually fire essential employees. We could end up with a government run by planning analysts and friends of senators.

To cut fat and not muscle out of the federal budget, four interrelated inflations need to be looked at: inflated pay, inflated job descriptions, inflated grades, and inflated slots.

The last is easiest to explain. Suppose the country were being overrun by Albanian moths. The Department of Agriculture would ask the Civil Service Commission for authority to establish positions for, say, 200 Albanian Moth Control Officers. Because of the emergency, the authority would be granted and Agriculture would have 200 new slots. Suppose the Albanian moth were then brought under control. Would the slots be abolished? Certainly not.

Then there is grade inflation, sometimes called grade creep. In one study, the Civil Service Commission hardly the system's most severe critic--found that 150,000 workers had been overgraded, meaning their rank was higher than the level required by their actual work. In 1985, 8.2 percent of federal workers were in the upper middle class of the civil service, grades GS-12 through GS-15. Today the figure is 28.9 percent. Grade creep means too many chiefs and too few Indians, too many supervisors and too few people to do the work.

Related to grade inflation is payroll inflation. Although some technical and professional employees are underpaid--how can we ever adequately compensate the air traffic controller who skillfully handles nerve-racking rush hours at New York's Kennedy airport?many civil servants are paid too much for the jobs they do. In 1992, the average civil servant earned $6,000 more than the average American. GS-15s, many of whom have responsibilities comparable to those of supermarket managers, make as much as $86,589 per year, and they are only at the top of the middle grades. Above them are the cream of the career bureaucrats, the members of the Senior Executive Service, whose salaries range from $92,900 to $115,700.

If government jobs paid as poorly as bureaucrats say they do, wouldn't there be a shortage of applicants and wouldn't bureaucrats be resigning in droves to accept better-paying jobs in private industry? Neither, of course, is happening. In Washington, an average of 300,000 people a year seek government jobs. There are few positions to fill, however. Only 1 percent of those applicants ever find an administrative job-and I mean any administrative job.

Behind the inflated grades and pay lies the fourth kind of inflation: the inflated job description, the document by which the civil service system determines rank and salary. In even the smallest bureaucratic unit you will find at least one person skilled in writing descriptions, who can turn typists into "word processors" and elevator operators into "vertical vehicle controllers." Those ten-dollar words produce thousand-dollar raises.

Reducing this inflation is not easy. Government employees can be fired by a process called RIF (reduction in force) if their agency's budget has been cut. But a RIF endangers the government's efficiency because employees are retained or dismissed on the basis of seniority, not ability. The idiotic result of this policy was illustrated in 1991 when Cathy Nelson, who had just been named Minnesota's Teacher of the Year, was laid off because of lack of seniority. The Reagan administration struck a demoralizing blow to the morale of the best civil servants when it used RIF to dismiss several thousand young workers without regard to how capable they were, while retaining senior employees' services without regard to how incompetent they were. But the administration had no choice of method of firing because over the years civil servants have managed to get regulations passed and win court rulings that make it next to impossible to fire them any other way. As one observed, "We're all like headless nails down here---once you get us in, you can't get us out."

The difficulty of removing a bureaucrat is illustrated by the case of Clarence Ferguson, an employee of the National Marine Fisherics Service in St. Petersburg, Florida. Ferguson, according to the St. Petersburg Times, drank a pint of gin a day. During the years 1980--83, he missed 389 days of work. Finally, he was fired. Now a federal judge has given him the right to get his job back and has awarded him $150,000 back pay. The judge reasoned that all federal agencies should make reasonable accommodation for their "handicapped" workers, including alcohol and drug addicts.

An alcoholic who misses 389 days of work deserves our sympathy and help in overcoming his addiction, but he does not deserve a government job. The only standard that should govern the retention of employees is performance.

One high-level bureaucrat claims that showing cause for firing, as the law requires, can take up to 50 percent of the bureaucrat's working time for a period that may run from six to eighteen months. The executive must keep a diary of the employee's indiscretions (tardiness, mistakes, goofing off, flubbed assignments) before filing a complaint. Protected by a maze of regulations and limitations and often defended by lawyers from government employees' unions, a civil servant threatened with firing can drag a heating out for months or even years.

The result is a bureaucracy that is overstaffed with unproductive employees, employees who know that the government's rate of discharge for inefficiency is only one seventh of 1 percent.

What would happen if there were dramatic reductions in the number of government employees--cutting it, say, in half? There is no conclusive evidence on this point, but scattered returns are suggestive. Have you noticed any difference in the service you get from Washington bureaucrats during the last two weeks of December? Probably not, but did you know that in recent years absenteeism among Washington federal employees during that time has run as high as 60 percent?

The greatest obstacle to bureaucratic reform is that most people think it is better to have a system based on merit hiring than on political patronage. But the fact is that getting a government job has only the most modest relation to merit. Veterans get five free points added to their civil service exam score; disabled veterans get an extra ten. For nonveterans the trick is to know someone inside the agency. People already in the system are the first to know about a job opening, and knowing both the applicant and the job, they can tailor the job description to fit the person they want to hire. Insiders call it "the buddy system."

Even at the height of Watergate, Gordon Freeman, formerly of the House Manpower and Civil Service Subcommittee, contended that the real saboteurs of the civil service concept are civil servants themselves. "Sure, some politicians get jobs for their friends," he said, "but you could put all the Nixon-referred people on the Sequoia [a small yacht used by Nixon] and it would still float. But if you put all the people involved in the buddy system on the carrier Enterprise, it would sink."

A decade later, in 1982, a similar conclusion was reached in a study conducted by the Merit System Protection Board which found that the most common form of political abuse was the buddy system. And, another decade later, in 1991, a former director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) wrote: "Unfortunately the old merit examination for government is dead. What replaced the merit system.9 The buddy system. With no examination--or what amounted to the same thing, the widely used credentials exams which do not differentiate very well--why not pick friends or relatives?" The result, the former director says, is that more than "90 percent of the mid-to-upper level positions are filled by one employee requesting another by name." The merit system is thus one of Washington's purest forms of make-believe.

As a result of these practices and the indifference of political leaders, the civil service underwent a dramatic decline in quality during the seventies and eighties. Pat Ingraham, a professor of government who worked for the commission, said: "I've talked with hundreds of line managers and administrators from practically every federal agency. And what I hear is the quality of new hires is just getting worse and worse."

A major reason for this decline was the hostility to government of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush administrations and the neglect of recruiting for the civil service that was the natural result of their attitude. Donald Devine, Reagan's director of OPM, halted all recruiting by his agency. Terry Cutler, one of Devine's assistants, wrote in an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal:

The government does not need top graduates, administrative offices staffed with MBAs from Wharton, or policy shops full of the best and brightest whatevers. Government's goal should be not employee excellence but employee sufficiency.

With sights set so low, it's little wonder that the administrations have left us with a lot of government employees who are insufficient. If we are going to revitalize the government we must hire and keep people who are both talented and committed.

Federal reserve bored

The key to democratic politics is accountability. If you don't deliver the goods, the voters can throw you out. Remember that when the Postal Service was political it worked. We got our mail promptly. It was delivered twice a day, packages arrived intact, and a stamp cost three cents. Today it costs 10 times as much, but the service has gotten so bad that Federal Express has become rich filling the vacuum.

This pattern of declining service and rising prices did not keep the Postal Service from awarding nearly $20 million in bonuses to its top executives between 1988 and 1990, when the Postal Service actually lost more than $1.4 billion. The rigorous standards used in evaluating the performance of these executives is suggested by the fact that, of all those who could have gotten bonuses, 97 percent received them. And during 1989, while they were eliminating Sunday collections at thousands of mailboxes, postal officials spent more than $6 million on conferences for themselves in such places as Scottsdale, Arizona; Naples, Florida; Marina del Rey, California; and Maui, Hawaii. At Scottsdale, $13,000 was spent on three pre-dinner drinking parties and $99 a person for just one dinner.

The reason the Post Office stopped functioning efficiently was that it became nonpolitical. When it worked, congressmen knew that if the postmasters they appointed didn't deliver the mail, the congressmen would be blamed by the voters. Now the congressmen can say that it's out of their hands. Congress has surrendered vast powers to independent federal agencies over which it and the president have little real authority. Bureaucrats in such agencies feel beyond public control. Even when Congress or the president gives them an order, they find ways to subvert it.

The Library of Congress recently studied federal agencies' compliance with the Sunshine Act of 1976, which was supposed to open government to the public. The study found that of a group of 1,003 government meetings listed in the Federal Register, 627 were either partially or completely closed to the public. One closed meeting was held by the Federal Reserve Board to consider the design of its furniture; it was closed on the grounds that "matters of a sensitive financial nature were being considered by the Board."

The military is a master of this kind of subversion. When the navy was ordered to conserve fuel during the energy crisis of the early seventies, it reported that it had reduced its ships sailing time by 20 percent. What it actually did was redefine sailing time to exclude a ship's journey from the port to the fleet at sea.

What is this if not make-believe? Laws are passed, orders are given, compliance seems to occur, but nothing changes. Bureaucrats don't like real change, only the appearance of change. That is why they are so fond of reorganization. Reorganization gives them something to doredrawing charts, knocking down office walls--but nothing outside the agency, such as poverty or hunger or disease, is affected in the slightest. What does happen is that new jobs are created, almost always with higher grade classifications, which of course means higher salaries for the reorganizers.

The reason bureaucrats like internal reorganization better than external action is easy to understand. Suppose you work in an antipoverty agency and you do your job so well that poverty is eradicated. Or suppose you work in the Department of Energy and the energy problem disappears. What will happen to you? The bureaucrat can figure that out. If he takes real action, if he's truly effective, he'll be ont of work--he won't survive. If, on the other hand, his action is make-believe, poverty will not disappear, the energy problem will not be solved, and his job will be safe--he will survive. Now you understand the fundamental Washington equation:

Make-believe = Survival

Charles Peters is editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, This article was adapted from his book How Washington Really Works, published by Addison-Wesley.
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Author:Peters, Charles
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Date:Jan 1, 1993
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Post paternalism or black blackmail? Why The Washington Post endorsed Marion Barry three times.
Confessions of an investigative reporter.
Clueless in the Capital.
ONE SCANDALOUS STORY: Clinton, Lewinsky, and Thirteen Days That Tarnished American Journalism.
Karen's page.

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