The Green-Zoning of America
One of the best of the many recent books about the Iraq debacle is Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” The book tells a tale of hopes squandered in the name of politicization and privatization: key jobs in Baghdad’s Green Zone were assigned on the basis of loyalty rather than know-how, while key functions were outsourced to private contractors.
Two recent reports in The New York Times serve as a reminder that the Bush administration has brought the same corruption of governance to the home front. Call it the Green-Zoning of America.
In the first article, The Times reported that a new executive order requires that each agency contain a “regulatory policy office run by a political appointee,” a change that “strengthens the hand of the White House in shaping rules that have, in the past, often been generated by civil servants and scientific experts.” Yesterday, The Times turned to the rapid growth of federal contracting, fed “by a philosophy that encourages outsourcing almost everything government does.”
These are two different pieces of the same story: under the guise of promoting a conservative agenda, the Bush administration has created a supersized version of the 19th-century spoils system.
The blueprint for Bush-era governance was laid out in a January 2001 manifesto from the Heritage Foundation, titled “Taking Charge of Federal Personnel.” The manifesto’s message, in brief, was that the professional civil service should be regarded as the enemy of the new administration’s conservative agenda. And there’s no question that Heritage’s thinking reflected that of many people on the Bush team.
How should the civil service be defeated? First and foremost, Heritage demanded that politics take precedence over know-how: the new administration “must make appointment decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second.”
Second, Heritage called for a big increase in outsourcing — “contracting out as a management strategy.” This would supposedly reduce costs, but it would also have the desirable effect of reducing the total number of civil servants.
The Bush administration energetically put these recommendations into effect. Political loyalists were installed throughout the government, regardless of qualifications. And the administration outsourced many government functions previously considered too sensitive to privatize: yesterday’s Times article begins with the case of CACI International, a private contractor hired, in spite of the obvious conflict of interest, to process cases of incompetence and fraud by private contractors. A few years earlier, CACI provided interrogators at Abu Ghraib.
The ostensible reason for politicizing and privatizing was to promote the conservative ideal of smaller, more efficient government. But the small-government rhetoric was never sincere: from Day 1, the administration set out to create a vast new patronage machine.
Those political appointees chosen for their loyalty, not their expertise, aren’t very good at doing their proper jobs — as all the world learned after Hurricane Katrina struck. But they have been very good at rewarding campaign contributors, from energy companies that benefit from lax regulation of pollution to pharmaceutical companies that got a Medicare program systematically designed to protect their profits.
And the executive order described by The Times will make it even easier for political appointees to overrule the professionals, tailoring government regulations to suit the interests of companies that support the G.O.P. — or to give lucrative contracts to people with the right connections.
Meanwhile, never mind the idea that outsourcing of government functions should be used to promote competition and save money. The Times reports that “fewer than half of all ‘contract actions’ — new contracts and payments against existing contracts — are now subject to full and open competition,” down from 79 percent in 2001. And many contractors are paid far more than it would cost to do the job with government employees: those CACI workers processing claims against other contractors cost the government $104 an hour.
What’s truly amazing is how far back we’ve slid in such a short time. The modern civil service system dates back more than a century; in just six years the Bush administration has managed to undo many of that system’s achievements. And the administration still has two years to go.