In the Executive Branch, Why Conservatives are Never Really in Power

Why does the growth of government and resulting intrusiveness—even lawlessness—seem to ratchet forward year after year without slowing down? Even when both Congress and the White House are in the hands of Republicans? Today I ran across this post from July 2009, which excerpted a Hans von Spakovsky piece in PJ Media on that subject. I decided to update and expand it, and then pose some questions at the end, because I think this is a problem the very next Republican president (assuming he’s a genuine conservative) needs to begin tackling.

The problem

Hans A. von Spakovsky on the false idea of Executive “control” of the Executive branch:

Hans_von_Spakovsky_publicity_shotWith the end of the Bush administration, and the beginning of the most liberal administration in American history, it is a good time to take stock of what happened over the past eight years. Conservatives get very frustrated over the failure of Republican administrations in general to change the course of the federal government. They do not understand why an executive branch “controlled” by a Republican president continued to implement liberal policies and regulations. Examples abound over the past eight years — from the Department of Justice’s all-out enforcement of foreign language ballots, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s refusal to act against companies that engage in reverse racial discrimination on the basis of “diversity,” to the discriminatory awarding of federal contracts on the basis of race that continued in every federal department from Transportation to Commerce. However, Republicans (much less conservatives) are not really in control of the executive branch even when they occupy the White House, something that most people (especially conservatives outside of Washington) do not fully understand.

Important insights we need to be aware of. But never seem to be.

The fault of leadership

Von Spakovsky begins with what most of us seem to believe is the main problem (at we behave as if that’s what we believe):

Part of the problem can be a failure of presidential leadership. After all, a president’s advisors and political appointees are supposed to carry out what they perceive to be his views and direction. When a Republican president does not make it clear that he expects conservative principles to be followed throughout the executive branch, then no attempt will be made by his political appointees to change liberal policies at the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, or any other federal agency.

He doesn’t mention here that there is also a mistaken political calculus at work, which is the fault of Republican presidents and results in von Spakovsky’s final point (below).

The size of government

Even when you have a conservative president, there are a number of other significant reasons why the federal government remains a champion of liberalism. These reasons are inherent in the structure of the executive branch, the employees who make up its ranks, and the occupants of the capitol, both inside and outside of government.

First, most people do not understand the sheer magnitude of the executive branch. There are almost 3 million federal employees, 99 percent of whom are career civil servants over whom the president has virtually no authority. Seventeen states have fewer citizens than the federal government has bureaucrats. There are only a few thousand positions within the federal government that are subject to “noncompetitive appointment,” i.e., positions that the president can fill through political patronage. Among these are 1,137 positions that can be filled by presidential appointment with Senate confirmation; 320 positions subject to presidential appointment without confirmation; and 701 positions in the Senior Executive Service (the top level of managers within the federal ranks) that can be filled by non-career appointments.

As these numbers illustrate, it is the career civil servants who pull the millions of levers of power, not the few political appointees at the top of every agency. It is very difficult for the appointees to even keep track of the policies being implemented by the career staff, much less change them.

The ideological makeup of the bureaucracy

This would not be a problem if the career ranks were really filled with nonpartisan individuals (as the New York Timesunwaveringly claims) who impartially carried out the policies of the president. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. From the State Department, to the Central Intelligence Agency, to the Department of Justice, and every agency in between, career employees are overwhelmingly partisan liberals, just like in the media and academic worlds. As Richard Perle has eloquently said, when George Bush tried to pull the levers of government, he never realized that they were disconnected from the machinery and the exertion was largely futile. The bureaucracies of these agencies have their own policies and they largely ignored President Bush’s directives and his political appointees, a problem President Obama will not have.

He doesn’t mention here that there is a mistaken political calculus at work that actually enables and cements this dynamic:

  • Republican presidents believe some departments (like Justice and State) should not be political.
  • Democrats never believe this—except when a Republican is president.
  • Republican presidents are almost universally afraid to raise the ire of Democratic lawmakers with their appointments, so they generally appoint “neutral” personalities to lower level appointed positions.
  • Democratic lawmakers define “neutral” as personalities who consistently support government intervention wherever that is possible.

What do we do about it?

I believe the next (conservative) Republican president needs to take an ambitious, even radical, approach to this problem. He needs to campaign courageously and clearly. And, alas, carefully.

  • How courageously?
  • How clearly?
  • How carefully?

For me, though they’ve occupied my mind for some time, these are questions for another day. In the meantime, what do you think?

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