Like Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan says, according to the press, that he can cure all the ills of government by doing something drastic to the federal bureaucracy. Reagan's remedy appears to be a "freeze": no new employees until the jobs done by the old are scrutinized. "Reorganization" was Carter's: "1,900 agencies" (a figure all his own) would be consolidated and cut down into a manageable few.
As symbols in political campaigns, these words may well make sense. They are both concrete and evocative. But as programs for action they are wide of the mark, infeasible where not largely irrelevant. And time spent learning this by trial and error, after inauguration, is precious time, first-months-in-office time better spent on learning things that help to made a presidency matter. presidency matter.
Carter's example is instructive. He put a substantial staff to work, first at finding 1,900 things they could call "agencies" and then assiduously studying how to combine them better for the sake of more effective public service. The ground once plowed by a Heineman task force in Johnson's time an Ash council in Nixon's was plowed afresh; new insights emerged, new proposals eventuated. But the only major structural reorganizations actually completed in the Carter term to date are the departments of Energy and Education, both envisaged before 1977, both pledged in the campaign and both voted by Congress as regular bills after a showing of indifference or support from the affected interests. Otherwise opposed interests or hostile subcommittees have sufficed to sink Carter's reorganization plans, even before he formally proposed them. Unlike Nixon, Carter evidently tried out his proposals in advance and then killed most of them, instead of letting Congress do it. He usually found them not worth fighting for, compared with other things -- substantive things -- he wanted more and thought the country needed more just then.
Consistently, reorganization took a back seat to policy in competition for the president's appeals to Congress and priorities in Congress. There is nothing surprising about that. Such has been the fate of most reorganization plans proposed by presidents for 30 years. Why then did Carter cry "reorganize" in 1976? Perhaps he had illusions about governing in Washington. Why does Reagan now cry "freeze"? Perhaps his illusions are the same.
Carter and his aides unquestionably know by now that congressional subcommittee jurisdiction is the key to executive agency reorganization. Who holds the key to congressional committees? Nowadays no one, least of all the White House. And what is Congress? Still less an entity than is the "executive branch." Congress is a chamber and a hall, four sets of party leaders, 300 subcommittees, 535 members, 15,000 professional staff members. Yet the executive departments and their programs are at least as much servants of "Congress" as of presidents -- properly so; indeed, constitutionally. If one seeks in the executive establishment more integration of objectives, better coordination, more effectual administration and the like, a good cry would be "strengthen the congressional leadership", give some reality to Congress as an entity -- and thereby give the president some colleagues he can bargain with for help in jointly superintending agencies downtown. As a governmental issue, this has genuine improtance. As a campaign slogan, it is obviously awful.
Similarly with Reagan's "freeze." Federal civilian employees actually account, these days, for no more than 7 percent of federal budgets. Federal civilian employment totals less than 3 million, and has done so for two generations. In the main, on the civilian side, the feds produce money (and regulations), not services. The money is spent and the services performed by states, cities and contractors. If Reagan wants to freeze something, the 13 million state and local employees provide a bigger target. But as he knows -- or should, and will if he's elected -- one cannot cut people without cutting programs. In no substantial way can one cut "fat" without "muscle." And programs are produced by laws and appropriations, then administered under legislative veto or other detailed oversight, the province of congressional subcommittees.
Running against bureaucrats makes doubtful sense or other scores than these.
The winner soon will need them more than they need him. Four party transfers of the White House in 30 years (compared with two in the preceding 30) have been accompanied by deep suspicion on the part of many newcomers, a pronounced sense of their own virtue contrasted to the permanent government's vices. Carter's transition was notable in this respect, and his suspicion seemed to linger long. Alas, it is mostly a waste, a drag upon performance, not alone for bureaucrats but for their nominal masters. A fifth party change next winter might set a new standard for that.
Yet this is not an iron law, not literally inevitable. In 1953, when the Republicans, returning after 20 years, found an executive establishment enlarged out of all recognition, two key appointees freed themselves from such mistrust. They brought with them no entourage, took up on distant stance. Instead, they took inherited career officials to their bosom. Implicitly their message was: you're working for me now; let's go together and clean up all the rest of government. And so, in many respects, they did. These two were George Humphrey, secretary of the Treasury, and Joseph Dodge, director of the budget. In that administration they got off to such a fast start that as long as they were there they dominated the domestic side of government -- and Humphrey gained strong leverage on foreign affairs, too.
Those two had some close counterparts in 1961, but few in 1968 or 1977. In many instances, the Carter people seem to have been no less dubious about inherited career officials than the Nixon people. What of Reagan a mere four years after Carter? Press predictions currently suggest we may find out.
A new president has but 11 weeks after election to turn a campaign into an administration that at once begins to deal with the career employees in the agencies and Congress alike. Why, then, not take a leaf from Dodge's book and Humphrey's? The answer, both in 1968 and in 1977, appeared to be that the presidents themselves and those immediately around them actually believed their campaign rhetoric. They strode upon the scene to purge the government of evil. They never really liked the politics of governing -- not, anyway, on the domestic side -- and felt obscure distaste for it even guilt about it.
In all this there is nothing very new. Anti-power sentiments among the power holders, widely shared with citizens, is as American as apple pie. Both hark back to the farm. Both invoke Jeffersonian ideals. But at the end of the 20th century, in an urbanized, interdependent, multiracial setting, our bureaucracies, such as they are, carry the can. One nudges them or beats on them, or maybe -- Congress willing -- even guides them, but one cannot do without them: once in the Oval Office, "the enemy," as Pogo says, "is us." Making virtues of necessities is part of politics. It is a bit bemusing that in this instance the idea comes so hard to our contemporary presidential politicians.