Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Archive for December, 2007

The Bush contradiction in government

Posted by David Kassel on December 17, 2007

Two articles in the November/December issue of Public Administration Review highlight what seems to be a fundamental contradiction in American government—a contradiction that has become full blown under the current Bush administration.

The contradiction is basically this:  George W. Bush, perhaps more than any president before him, has sought to strengthen the authority of the presidency under the “unitary executive theory” of presidential power.  Yet, at the same time, Bush has actively promoted a trend that began in the Reagan years of downsizing government.

Why would Bush fight to increase his power and authority over the federal government, and yet work, at the same time, to make that government smaller and internally weaker?

I’m not saying I have an answer to this riddle, but it does seem that the roots of this contradiction extend back to the 1930s, when the Brownlow Committee was wrestling with the limits of presidential power and the relationship of the presidency to the rest of government.

The November/December issue of PAR contains a symposium on the 70th anniversary of the Brownlow Report, which the journal refers to as the first major reconceptualization of the American presidency since the office was created in 1789.

In separate articles, both Herbert Kaufman and Peri Arnold write that a stregthened presidency was a key outcome of the Brownlow Committees report.  Arnold noted that  Congress ultimately provided the president with greater authority over executive organization.  The Brownlow Committee, he said:

promoted a managerially strengthened presidency and an efficient, effective, and modern government.

Kaufman noted that the Brownlow Committee focused on a lack of coordination throughout government as its most presssing problem, and proposed a hierarchy of governmental authority, culminating in enhanced presidential authority, as the best way to deal with it.  The Committee also recommended the expansion of the career civil service as a way to increase expertise and experience.

However, much in government has changed since the 1930s.  Today, Kaufman pointed out, the Brownlow Committee’s views on hierarchical organization and civil service, in particular, have come under increasing attack.  Beginning in the 1990s, advocates of New Public Management or the “reinventing government” movement called for privatization of governmental functions, the introduction of market conditions in government, and the reassignment of many functions from the federal government to the states.  Civil service came under increasing attack as well.

The result has been a federal government that has been radically downsized in many areas, with departments that are increasingly staffed by political appointees.  At the same time, Kaufman argues, many of the problems that the Brownlow Committee identified, particularly the problem of a lack of coordination, have only grown worse over the decades.  He cites malfunctions in the intelligence community and responses to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as examples.

Thus, it seems that while modern presidents, including George W. Bush, have been beneficiaries of the Brownlow Committee’s call for a stronger presidency, Bush has at the same time seized on the downsizing aspects of New Public Management and negated some of those benefits.

Interestingly, a third article in the same issue of PAR, contends that movements have started within governments in the U.S. and a number of other countries to counter some of the “fragmentation of the public sector” that has been caused by New Public Management and to improve coordination within government.  The so-called Whole-of-Government approach is intended to restore “a strong and unified sense of values, trust, value-based management, and collaboration…, according to the article by Tom Christensen and Per Laegreid.

It does seem to be true that a sense of values, trust, and collaboration appear to be lacking today.  Whether the Whole-of-Government approach represents a return to those values and will undo the Bush contradiction remains to be seen.


Posted in Oversight, Private, Public | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Reining in the campaign bundlers

Posted by David Kassel on December 13, 2007

We all know by now that the life-blood of government has become special interest money, which increasingly underpins our entire electoral process.

Public Citizen’s Watchdog blog reports that in 2008, winning the presidency is going to cost $1 billion between the two major-party candidates.  It’s the lobbyists and fundraisers who have become the conduits of that wealth between the special interests and the politicians, who, if and when they win office, aren’t inclined to forget who got them there.

But while we all know this is the case, we lack the will to change the system.  The fitful series of campaign reform efforts since the 1970s seems to have brought along loopholes with every new rule.  Thus, campaign finance reform may have stemmed the tide of this history a bit, but the tide has still been relentless. 

One of these loopholes has led to the emergence of “bundlers,” who increasingly operate on behalf of businesses and wealthy special interest groups.   While individuals are legally limited to spending $2,300 on a particular candidate, bundlers can round up contributions from numerous individuals from a single business or industry. 

Currently, bundlers have to disclose their roles only if they personally hand over these checks to the campaigns, according to Public Citizen.  The campaigns get around this rule by employing a tracking system that enables the bundlers to cover their tracks. Campaigns give bundlers a tracking number, which the bundler asks the contributors to write on their checks.  This allows the campaigns to know who the bundler is, but keeps the public in the dark as to the bundler’s identity.

Here’s the quid pro quo.  Public Citizen found that one out of every four elite fundraisers to the Bush campaign in 2000 and 2004 received some form of governmental appointment, including ambassadorships and cabinet posts. 

How far into the body politic have the bundlers buried themselves?  Public Citzen’s website reports that top tier candidates for president have used them to raise hundreds of millions of dollars:

Hillary Clinton raised $88.5 million from 320 bundlers

Barack Obama: $78.9 million from 354 bundlers

Rudy Giuliani: $46.5 million from 218 bundlers

Mitt Romney: $44 million from 346 bundlers

John McCain: $31.4 million from 442 bundlers 

John Edwards:  $29.9 million from 666 bundlers

 So, what can be done?  It doesn’t appear that imposing new rules is going to work.  The only viable solution that I can see is to work toward more reliance on public financing of campaigns.

The proposed Presidential Funding Act of 2007 appears to go in the right direction.  Public Citizen reports that it would overhaul the current public financing system for presidential campaigns by increasing spending ceilings for publicly funded candidates.  Publicly funded candidates receive federal campaign funding in exchange for giving up special interest contributions. 

The bill would also raise the voluntary tax check-off system for public campaign financing from $3 to $10 per individual and would provide a 4-to-1 match of public funds to private donations of $200 or less.  The measure also does propose some additional rules, including requiring presidential campaigns to disclose all of their fundraising bundlers (this would compliment the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act of 2007, S. 1 and H.R. 2316, which is currently pending in Congress), and prohibiting national parties from using unregulated special interest money to pay for their national party nominating conventions.

At the state level, public financing needs to be enhanced as well.  The Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Lt. Gov. Tim Murray have raised more than $1.4 million in campaign contributions in the past year, much of it from special interest groups regulated by government.  Murray, a Democrat, has turned to Robert M. Platt, a State House lobbyist and Republic fundraiser who happens to be supporting Romney’s presidential campaign this year.

Although Massachusetts law restricts individual donors to a limit of $500 to statewide candidates, bundling appears to be a way of getting around that limit, just as it is at the federal level. 

The federal public funding legislation, which has bipartisan support in the House and Senate, has been co-sponsored by Clinton, Obama, and Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden.  One would hope that the major Republican presidential contenders are in favor of it as well.  

Posted in campaign finance and lobbying, Private, Public | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The tangled web of U.S. torture

Posted by David Kassel on December 9, 2007

On a human level, one of the more disturbing things about the CIA’s destruction of the videotapes of its interrogations of two top Al Qaeda operatives is that there were hundreds of hours of these tapes.

Hundreds of hours of “harsh interrogation” (read possible torture) of two people?  How many interrogation sessions were held and how long did each session last?  These sessions reportedly included stress positions and waterboarding. What kind of information could the CIA have possibly gotten out of this by the 50th hour of this kind of interrogation, the 70th?

The destruction of the tapes revives a debate over larger issues as well, such as the Bush administration’s power to conduct these kinds of interrogation sessions under its expansive interpretation of the the unitary executive theory.  Has the administration ignored laws and court decisions, which were passed to restrict or ban the use of torture, and what authority does it have for doing so?

Moreover, has Congress implicitly given the administration the authority to use torture through the enactment of legislation such as the Military Commissions Act?

It’s good to see the Democrats finally making an issue of the videotapes.  Senator Edward Kennedy has called the destruction of the videotapes “a coverup,” and compared it to the 18 1/2-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes during Watergate.  But where has Congress been on the torture issue for the past six years?  What have the Democrats done since they gained control of Congress last year?

There are a host of related questions, some of which are before the courts right now.  One concerns our authority to detain enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay without giving them the right to challenge their detentions in court.  According to The Times, five lower-level detainees at Guantanamo were initally charged with offenses based on information provided by or related to Abu Zubaydah, one of the two Al Qaeda operatives whose interrogations were filmed by the CIA, which subsequently destroyed the tapes.

The question  arises whether the information Zubaydah provided against these detainees and perhaps others was coerced and therefore worthless.   And that question itself raises further questions about the Military Commissions Act, and whether it gave the U.S. the authorization to detain and convict people based on coerced information.

It’s a tangled web, and it’s one in which we’ve managed to ensnare ourselves through our disregard of basic human rights.

Posted in Oversight, Public | Tagged: , , , , | Comments Off on The tangled web of U.S. torture

Writing about public administration and the media

Posted by David Kassel on December 4, 2007

The November issue of PA Times  has a special section on public administration and the media, and the four articles that comprise the section are a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

First up is a rather disjointed article by Caroline Westerhof, which appears to be about the roles of presidential press secretaries.  It contains some slightly off-balance metaphors, such as this one: the media and public administration “are entwined as the spine is to the body.”  Which is the spine and which is the body in this case?

And the piece has some real head-scratchers, such as:

The media is an arm of the public sector, driven by the private sector, within a framework of public policies.

The media is an “arm of the public sector…?”  Well, that certainly leads nicely into the second article, “Skipping the Middle Man with a Governmental E-News Site,” by Mordecai Lee. 

Lee sets up his argument with the correct, if now fairly well-worn, observation that news coverage of government is shrinking and fewer and fewer reporters have government-oriented beats.  When the media spotlight does shine on government, he says, it is for all the wrong reasons: cheap-shot stories about bureaucrats and red tape, and “all manner of waste-fraud-and-abuse stories,”  all of which play into Americans’s natural tendency to distrust government.

It’s a fair criticism, but Lee’s solution seems somewhat limited to me.  He suggests that government at all levels take its news directly to the people by establishing “E-News sites” that would “operate like the homepage of a daily newspaper, containing stories of broad interest…”  Agencies would be invited to contribute stories ranging from health advisories to reports on highway conditions to new hunting regulations.

All fine and good, but this is hardly going to fill the growing gap left by the declining media coverage of government.  Lee acknowledges that:

The key for this concept to work would be to resist…the desire of the chief executive officials (whether governor, mayor or county executive) to turn the site into a “look what a great job I’m doing” site.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine a Pentagon E-News site breaking the Abu Ghraib or the Walter Reed Army Medical Center stories.

Next up, Judi Haberkorn makes some incisive points in her continuation of the discussion about declining media coverage of substantive issues.  She notes that TV news media, in particular, has shown little interest in education, the envrionment and health care, “unless of course, you think that Viagra and cosmetic surgery are all one needs to survive.”   Haberkorn doesn’t try to offer any solutions, other than to suggest that the public keep a watchful eye on the media ownership debates occurring at the FCC.

Finally, in “Latinos, the Media and Public Administration,”  Tony Carrizales decries the lack of understanding and recognition that both the media and public administrators have shown of the diversity of U.S. Latinos.  It seems a fair point to make that in coverage of immigration policy, in particular, the media often fail to recognize that recent immigrants come from more than 20 Latin American countries.  These immigrants have sought entry into the U.S. in recent decades, he notes, not only for economic opportunity, but to escape oppressive political regimes.

Posted in Private, Public | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »