Two Bureaucracies

Success and dysfunction in a time of fiscal and political crisis.

The federal government always seems to be in the midst of one crisis or another. These days, the emergency is fiscal in nature, and it has brought government under closer scrutiny than ever. As the country struggles to dig itself out of a deep economic hole, and political debates become more contentious, agencies are trapped in the middle. Some federal officials and operations manage to succeed, even thrive, under such circumstances. Others descend into a state approaching bureaucratic stasis.

In this month's issue, we present in-depth examinations of organizations at both ends of the spectrum. In our cover story, Charlie Clark explores how the Health and Human Services Department is working to implement the massive health care reform law. That involves writing thousands of pages of new regulations, launching programs, setting up evaluation systems and creating a website to showcase data from its Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.

But that effort, which involves spending billions, is anathema to GOP lawmakers who have continued their fight against passage of the wide-ranging measure into the effort to implement the law. Still, despite pressure from Capitol Hill, HHS officials are continuing to do their jobs, winning the praise of analysts who note that progress in implementing the law is all the more impressive given constraints on staffing.

Meanwhile, in our other feature story in this issue, freelance writer Dawn Lim, a former Government Executive intern, looks at how the administrative law judge operation at the Housing and Urban Development Department has sunk into a dysfunctional morass of legal arguments and counterarguments.

The department's only two ALJs have sued their boss, saying he has improperly interfered with their operations. While those cases are pending, the judges say they have an ethical obligation to offer to disqualify themselves from deciding cases involving the department-which, of course, are virtually the only types of cases that come before them.

HUD has been forced to contract out cases to judges at other agencies, but says it doesn't have unlimited funds to keep doing so. In the meantime, housing developers and other parties involved in administrative proceedings at HUD are caught in the middle of what an attorney for one developer called a "bureaucratic disgrace."

There may be no simple solution to the problems in HUD's administrative law operations, just as there's no easy way for HHS to meet its obligations under a political microscope. But at a moment when public support for government is dipping lower, one hopes that more federal agencies find a way to rise above their circumstances and demonstrate they can work effectively.

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