When forced to cut budgets, bureaucrats will cut muscle rather than fat, because they are the fat.
Corps of Engineers Corollary.
When bureaucrats have money to spend, they will not only seek ways to spend it, but constituencies to demand that they keep spending it.
This rule was formulated by Charles Peters, founder of The Washington Monthly magazine and its editor from 1969 to 2001. Peters was a self-described “neo-liberal” who said liberals must subject well-intentioned ideas to the test of fact and experience, and abandon and revise programs that don’t work as intended. (This is different from the right-wing “neo-liberalism” of today, which favors privatization of public assets and elimination of government services and regulation.)
Click on Firemen first, or how to beat a budget cut for Peters’ 1976 article stating this principle. Click on How Washington really works for a longer and still-true 1993 article by Peters.
Click on Charles Peters wiki for his Wikipedia biography.
Click on The Washington Monthly for the magazine’s current web site.
I’m sorry the links to Charles Peters’ two major articles no longer work. Here are selections from more recent writings in his Tilting at Windmills column in the Washington Monthly. The first batch is from March-April 2011.
If there is one truth about bureaucratic culture that I am most desperate to get across, it concerns the survival imperative. Especially as government organizations mature, dedication to the performance of mission tends to be replaced by dedication to the survival of the official and of his agency. This means that protection of the agency’s budget becomes paramount. Otherwise the jobs of its officials are threatened. Next most important is growth of the budget, because it will increase opportunities for promotion.
The best way to avoid budget cuts is not to anger the groups that can make trouble for the agency with the congressional appropriations committee. Too often these groups are the mining, drilling, airline, and drug companies and the military contractors that the agency is supposed to oversee. And too often the public interest is not represented by equally strong voices. This, not the corruption that the media looks for, is the main reason that the agencies fail. Recent examples include the FAA’s long failure to crack down on the safety procedures of the regional airlines, the Minerals Management Service’s failure with British Petroleum, the mine safety agency’s failure to get Massey to improve its safety practice in time to prevent the Sago disaster, and the SEC and Federal Reserve’s failure to prevent the Wall Street meltdown.
Make-believe = survival
In our last issue, I told you most cables our diplomats send to the State Department are not read. Now comes confirmation from no less than the Secretary of State herself. Hillary Clinton is acknowledging, reports Lisa Rein of the Washington Post, that most of the thousands of reports our diplomats send to State “are never read.” Clinton, however, blames the problem on reports that the diplomats are required to write. What she does not acknowledge is that many of the cables are self-generated by the diplomats.
In my book How Washington Really Works, I explained the basic bureaucratic equation: “Make-believe = survival.” Writing memoranda and attending meetings are the activities that offer an official the opportunity to appear to be working hard and at the same time avoid trouble.
A similar truth applies to their bosses: “I have to confess, as a senator,” says Clinton, “when in doubt, order a report.”
This reminds me of a secret of Washington life enunciated by one of the great students of bureaucracy, the late Jim Boren: “When in doubt, mumble.” An important corollary is to accompany the mumble with the grave demeanor of a wise elder statesman.
Here are selections from his Tilting at Windmills column for November-December 2010.
Government spending on you is excessive. Government spending on me is perfect.
The self-protective concerns of the tenured are part of a much larger problem in the nation as a whole. It is a concern for “holding on to mine” without regard to the public interest. Consider Wall Streeters’ determination to preserve their wildly excessive incomes, even if it means opposing reforms that could benefit the whole economy. And the major problem for Obama right now is the anger of seniors at his health care reform, which they perceive as a threat to Medicare. The Tea Partiers now attribute their anger to a wide variety of grievances, including the deficit and big government, but it all began last summer at those town meetings, where we saw one senior after another screaming that he didn’t want the government messing with his Medicare.
If you’re looking to cut the size of government …
One mistake Tea Partiers make when they rant about big government is that they fail to discriminate. Sometimes government is too big. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recently pointed out, the Pentagon’s military bureaucracy needs trimming. He proposes a 5 percent reduction in the number of generals and admirals. In fact, even more cuts could be made. A veteran Pentagon critic, Winslow Wheeler, notes that during World War II, we had one general for every 6,382 enlisted men. Now we have one for every 1,519 soldiers. Even more dramatic is the contrast between today’s American forces and the most effective armies of history—the Israeli force that won the spectacular victory in the 1967 war, which had a ratio of one general to 6,916 enlisted men, and the Roman army of 52 AD, which had a ratio of one to 8,711.
On a less lofty level, Gates also pointed out that the number of people in military bands now exceeds the number of foreign service officers serving in the State Department in Washington and throughout the world. The Marines alone have thirteen bands, with some 730 musicians. The Army, according to the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, is spending $4 million to construct a new home in Alabama for the forty members of the Army Material Command band. This seems a bit excessive, since that command has a grand total of only 5,000 officers and enlisted men spread throughout the world. There are, Pincus adds, thirty-six other Army bands, plus eighteen Army Reserve bands, and fifty-three Army National Guard bands. And remember, we haven’t even gotten to all the Air Force and Navy bands serving in the United States and abroad.
Fewer trombonists, more inspectors
On the other hand, at one regulatory agency after another, we see the need for more, not less, enforcement personnel. The SEC, the FDA, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission are examples. More recently, the pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, exposed a need throughout the country either for more inspection or for more rigorous requirements that defective pipes discovered by inspection are repaired or replaced.
Regulation by milquetoasts
Of course, sometimes when there is an adequate number of inspectors, they are conditioned not to make trouble for the inspected. When the Department of Agriculture inspected Wright County Egg in Iowa, later found to be a major source of salmonella, they discovered, according to the Wall Street Journal, “[d]rain clogged, full of shells,” “bugs everywhere,” “cooler floor was dirty, lots of trash,” and “the dry storage area had lots of trash, cartons on the floor everywhere.” These reports came from inspections that occurred from April 1 through August 17 of this year. But the DOA failed to tell the FDA, which is responsible for egg safety, about these problems. The salmonella outbreak occurred a few weeks later. Why didn’t the DOA say anything? “The conditions at the egg plant packing facility were routine.” In other words, the plant has always been a mess, so why speak up now?