Bureaucrats are timid, fearful creatures. Any taxpayer knows that. but only those of us ho live in the strange atmosphere of Bureaucrat City know why it is true.
The secret is that bureaucrats rarely are punished for doing nothing.Where they get into trouble is when they do something -- even their jobs. Two amples this past week:
Last Monday the driver of a Metro subway train was just beginning his shift. The radio in his car addvised him to look up and down the opposite track to see if another train was coming. He got out of his car to get a better look. He did not shut down the power.
The driver didn't see another car moving down the tracks. But what he did see was his own subway train, the one he was supposed to be driving, move off. With about 100 passengers, but without him!
That story ended happily, for the passengers. While it scared the sweat out of them -- hurtling past regular stops with nobody at the controls -- computers and a lady with a hairpin finally stopped the runaway car. The driver has been suspended without pay. Fortunately nobody "important" was on the subway.
Case number two involves what seems like a less serious incident. Only it involves some "important" people.
A mid-level Interior Department employe, an expert on snakes, noticed that one of Washington's fanciest French restaurants was serving rattlesnake for lunch and dinner. (Rattlesnake appetizers with burgundy sauce and fried mushrooms were going for $3.95. A full meal, Pennsylvania rattlesnake with green beans and red cabbage was $9.25 at lunch).
It wasn't the prices that bothered the Interior Department snake expert. It was the fact that Pennsylvania rattlesnakes (unloved as they are by most people) are getting to be very rare, too rare, he felt, to be gobbled up by gourmets.
So the Interior man wrote a letter to the restaurant owner, on government stationery. It advised the owner that rattlesnakes are in danger of becoming extinct. The story might have ended there but for two things.
The letter made The Ear gossip column. One of the guys who read the item was Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus. The restaurant in question is one of Andrus' favorite spots. Like most VIPs, he and the owner smile at each other on sight.
To make a long story short, the Interior Department man is to be fired. Grounds are that he used official government stationery, let Uncle Sam pay the postage and stated in his letter that Pennsylvania rattlesnakes are an endangered species.
Interior brass also noted that the letter to the fancy restaurant made the popular gossip column where "a serious matter was presented . . as trivial and frivolous to the public."
Interior Secretary Andrus hand-carried a letter of apology to the owner of the restaurant serving snakes. He also apologized in person. Another of his employes carried at letter of dismissal to the civil servant.
The Interior Department employe admits he was probably overzealous, and shouldn't have used official stationery on a personal matter. If employes, and officials were fired for the latter this would be a much smaller government.
Some cynics believe the snake expert's real crime was that he embarrassed the boss in front of his favorite restaurant owner. Suppose the scientists had taken off against MacDonald's alleging that the "Big Mac" was an endangered species. What if he had written Arthur Treacher a note asking about the origin of his great "Fish 'n Chips" dinner. No problem, probably, because VIPs prefer rattlesnake cutlets to Gino's "giants."
A few years back a belligerent (and apparently boozed up) member of Congress tangled with a guard at National Airport. The MC, terribly important and terribly rushed, was blocking traffic at the taxpayer-supported airport. When the guard asked him to move on, he showed the guard how important he was by "tapping" or "nudging" him with his car. Ever been "nudged" by a 6,000 pound car? It takes real skill to do it properly.
In the airport case the guard was by his superiors warned not to let it happen again. His federal agency told him not to talk to the press, and to consider himself lucky his body hadn't dented the Congressman's car! He and his colleagues got the message. You seldom get in trouble for NOT enforcing the law against VIPs. You don't get in trouble for not embarrassing your agency before Congress.
Sure bureaucrats are timid. They have to be. They aren't stupid.