My revolutionary thesis is this: we have a perfectly good form of government in place, but too many of the people we put in office don't want to govern. I bring this up because right about now every year, just after the annual congressional blowout, you hear talk about how we must reorganize, reform and above all "restructure" our government machinery. I don't dispute that there are a few laws and rules and tables of organization that could be shoved around to everyone's benefit. But don't deceive yourself that this will be decisive. The central and quite peculiar fact of our politics, it seems to me, is that so many people who are willing to trash their own personal and family lives for the sake of getting into government--running again and again for some job or importuning and angling shamelessly for an appointment--once in office, spend all their time thinking up ways not to have to govern.
Why else do you think we have all those paragovernmental bodies, the special commissions and special prosecutors and special negotiators and the rest? They are created to spare the people who should be governing the embarrassment or inconvenience of doing what they are supposed to do.
What were the two hottest issues facing the administration and Congress over the past couple of years? Arguably, what to do about Social Security financing and whether and how to proceed with the MX missile. Predictably both questions have been entrusted to the tender, bipartisan mercies of an ad hoc commission. The first rule of avoidance of the heat of government is not to get out of the kitchen, but rather to get the troublesome issue out of the kitchen so the place won't be so damned hot and you can sit around there in comfort.
The Social Security commission is especially interesting. It was created as an arena in which something could be "worked out" between Democrats and Republicans; this would blur the political edges and distinctions in the quarrel over whether to raise taxes or cut benefits and thus spare everyone a lot of awkwardness. By December it seemed as though the commission, however, had reached the same deadlock it was created to avoid, and so, characteristically, an effort was being made to get the commission's deadlock referred to yet another special forum.
The Law of Endlessly Multiplying Forums is at work here. Anything will do, so long as it is not the agency or legislature or department that was originally set up to do the work and which has responsibility for making a decision. The other rule demonstrated by these two commissions is this: no high government official comes into his own until he is out. If you are Alan Greenspan or Harold Brown or Brent Scowcroft, very smart men all, you will get nothing but grief while you are in government and almost instant respect as a disinterested arbiter of complex public issues when you or your administration have been retired. Greenspan heads the Social Security commission; Scowcroft and Brown have been named to the commission on the MX. It is easier to govern when you are not in government.
The implication of this is depressing. It is that the people on the spot and on the scene and with the responsibility to do the hard things and make the hard calls are precisely those who feel they need protection, who don't want to take the risks-- while those on the outside are called in to do their work. This has always been the implicit rationale of the semipublic, bipartisan ad hoc commission. Its members somehow manage to create consensus without cost or accountability for practicing politicians and officeholders.
Some part of this is merely an attempt to get Alphonse and Gaston to go through the door at the same time--no hanging back, no tricks, no traps. But there is more at work here than merely hoping to elude a political ambush. The special outside prosecutor or negotiator, as well as the special committee or commission, can also be a way to circumvent a bureaucracy, to get something done you cannot get your own department or party or side of the legislative aisle to do. It may also amount to a recognition that that department or legislature or bureaucracy has no credibility or authority in the very field it is meant to be responsible for: let's appoint a negotiator the foreign governments will respect or trust more than they would a Foreign Service regular . . . let's appoint an independent hearing board or prosecutor who won't be tempted to cover up departmental shortcomings and misfeasance.
In a notable and worthy exception to this general rule several years ago, after Lt. William Calley's terrible story had come to light, a decision was made to appoint a military group (Gen. William Peers' commission), not a group of public outsiders--college presidents, union leaders and so forth --to inquire into the Army's handling of the My Lai events. I remember thinking how unusual and wise this was. The point is not to reinforce the belief, inside and outside the relevant government bureaucracy or service, that some subjects are too hot or too important or too difficult for it to address. The point should be to expect and compel the right and responsible group to do its job. As it is now, however, at the first whiff of prospective difficulty or discomfort, we lift the responsibility off those who should shoulder it and give it to people whom, by inference, we trust more because we think they have less personal stake in the outcome. The suggestion here is that it is too much to expect the governors to govern honestly or fairly or courageously, and also too much to demand that they do.
Of all the various ways in which the fugitive nature of our government is exposed none surely is more spectacular than the closing of a congressional session. The reason you had at the end $379 billions' worth of stopgap, catch-all funding was that so many legislators during the year could not bear to face up publicly and in an orderly way to the cost of their own convictions or to say aloud what they were doing or even to acknowledge it to themselves. It's not just that they don't want to govern, they don't want to be seen to be governing. Gets them in trouble, they figure. Might cost them the next election.
If that is not a crazy state of affairs, then I ask you what is? And you tell me it can be fixed by changing the flow chart?