Taking the Cake

Bush’s actions taint the anniversary of hallmark reforms.

Bush's actions taint the anniversary of hallmark reforms.

December marks the 30th anniversary of three of the most important administrative reforms enacted during the past half century: the Civil Service Reform Act, the Ethics in Government Act and the Inspector General Act. The Bush administration will not be holding an anniversary party, however.

It has worked hard to undermine the spirit, if not the letter, of these laws.

Even in its final days, for example, the administration is mounting a serious challenge to the Civil Service Reform Act by asserting the president's right to define any government position as exempt from the merit principle. It is undermining the Ethics in Government Act by tolerating potential conflicts of interest in the management of the $700 billion bailout, giving private firms unprecedented influence over the effort. And the administration continues to attack the Inspector General Act through intimidation, budget caps and an unwillingness to address the incompetence of some of its appointees.

These are not the only examples of post-Watergate management statutes that are flagging. Others include:

  • The 1966 Freedom of Information Act cannot keep up with the pressure to hide more secrets.
  • The 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act has been repeatedly narrowed through tight definitions of exactly what constitutes "government" and "sunshine."
  • The 1984 Competition in Contracting Act has been undermined by the vast expansion in the dollars now awarded without competition.
  • The 1978 Presidential Records Act has become an exercise in wordplay as Vice President Dick Cheney claims that he is an officer of Congress, not the executive branch, in an effort to shield his papers from public view.
  • As for the 1974 Privacy Act, is there anything left at all?

The Bush administration would contest all these complaints, of course. The percentage of noncompetitive contracts is "no more and no less" than other administrations, says the president's budget office, even though spending on those contracts has soared. A nation at war requires new vigilance on freedom of information, says the White House staff, even if that means redaction of the most trivial documents. Most important perhaps, the need to guarantee constitutional prerogatives, says the Justice Department, allows the president to exercise a line-item veto through the rising tide of signing statements.

This is not to suggest that the Bush administration is against good management, at least as long as it fits its political agenda. It has brought needed reality to the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act by rating programs. It also has worked with good government groups to improve human capital management and e-government. The president's deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Clay Johnson, has given almost eight years to the effort, and has been a steadfast, if sometimes lonely, voice for improvement.

At the same time, the Bush administration often has worked against Johnson's goals. It has missed important opportunities to improve the presidential appointments process, to acknowledge and redress meddling by its twenty-something political operatives, and to reduce the needless layers of executive management that have thickened the federal hierarchy. Viewed as a whole, the administration likely will be remembered for accelerating the steady erosion of the federal government's ability to faithfully execute the laws, which Alexander Hamilton described as the "true test" of good government.

Ironically, the administration could have made a persuasive case that the Civil Service Reform Act is so badly broken that most of it should be repealed. The law has never lived up to its promise of a more responsive civil service, nor has it achieved its major goals. Instead of addressing its weaknesses through comprehensive reform, however, the Bush administration has worked mostly around the law, often in arrogant disregard of the core principles embedded in the merit system.

The administration could have made an equally compelling case that the Ethics in Government Act has failed. There is good evidence that the law has discouraged talented Americans from seeking presidential appointments while creating an enormous and undue paperwork burden on the thousands of federal employees who must complete the annual financial disclosure forms. Perhaps the paperwork would be worth it if it produced a scandal-proof government, but the scandals have kept coming. Few good-government groups ever inspect the financial disclosure forms, and still fewer worry about how to produce an aspiration of ethical conduct that rises well above the floor set by the law.

Finally, the Bush administration could have made a reasonable case that the Inspector General Act needs an overhaul. Rather than view IGs as double agents of Congress, the administration could have joined Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., in passing long overdue reforms in the act.

Instead, the administration threatened to veto the McCaskill-Cooper bill until the House dropped a provision that would have given inspectors general a seven-year term and removal only for cause.

The administration also stood against giving IGs authority to submit their budget requests directly to Congress if their agencies denied the resources needed to pursue fraud, waste and abuse at all levels of the hierarchy.

There is a reason that the Bush administration has decided to ignore the anniversaries of these statutes. Bluntly put, it does not believe in laws that get in the way of executive fiat. Now that the administration is done dealing with the messy constitutional requirement that it must either faithfully execute all the laws or change them, there isn't much reason to celebrate.

Paul C. Light is the author of A Government Ill Executed (Harvard University Press, 2008) and a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

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