Accountable Strategies blog

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

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.

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3 Responses to “The Bush contradiction in government”

  1. Ben Clark said

    “Bush has actively promoted a trend that began in the Reagan years of downsizing government.”
    I would argue strongly that Bush has done no such “active promotion”. Nor have any Republican presidents in the last 30+ years. Government has grown more under Republicans than Democrats. They talk a good game, but in the end there have been no small government Republican presidents. Any “downsizing” of government has just been a shift in responsibility. What was once done by public employees is now down by contractors. Or what was once done at the Federal level has been shifted to the state; and state to local. NPM talks a good game, but in the US, there has been no real decrease in the size of our government…its only gotten bigger. One thing every president from Carter to Bush II has done well with respect to our government is blame bureaucrats for being the problem, that is about it.

  2. Good point. It’s true that if you include contractors, government has grown steadily. But contractors are technically in the nonprofit or private sectors. If a government agency privatizes its functions, it is likely to lay off its own employees and replace them with employees under contract.

    My argument is simply that this trend toward privatization weakens governmental authority. Public managers must now monitor the work of private contractors, who often have more expertise in the drafting of the contract provisions than the public managers themselves. To me, this trend goes against the efforts of modern presidents to strengthen their authority. What’s the advantage of having strong control over government if it’s a hollow government?

  3. Ben Clark said

    There is no doubt that accountability is lessened by using contractors. Blackwater is a great example of this.

    And yes there is limited utility of a strong executive with a hollow government, except for guiding the policies and actions that the contractors are doing (albeit with less control than if the government itself was doing that job).

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