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Bold Government

America has regained its love of big government. But can the romance last?

America has regained its love of big government. But can the romance last?


ast October, the United States Senate engaged in a debate the likes of which Americans had not seen in decades. At issue was a proposal to have the federal government take over responsibility for security functions at the nation's airports.

Under ordinary circumstances, a debate on dramatically expanding the size and scope of the federal establishment could be expected to be highly partisan and bitterly contentious. Indeed, on Oct. 10, Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., said, "whether or not to federalize airport security personnel is an issue that still deeply divides this body."

As it turned out, though, the divisions weren't deep at all. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., had teamed up to push the measure, which took authority for security away from private contractors hired by the nation's airlines. "I determined, along with Sen. McCain, that bygones were bygones with all this fetish about privatization," Hollings said on the Senate floor Oct. 10. "In a time of war, we can't relegate security and safety to any low-cost bidder." One by one, other senators from both sides of the aisle rose to speak in favor of the bill.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., was one of the few lawmakers who had the temerity to raise the standard conservative objections to expanding the federal government. "I don't think that over time, the American taxpayer is going to look at a bureaucrat bag screener and say, 'I feel safer because a federal employee is checking my bags,' " he said on Oct. 11.

Minutes after his speech, though, Shelby threw in the towel. Along with the other 99 members of the world's greatest deliberative body, he voted in favor of a bill that would provide for a complete federal takeover of airport security.

On the House side, conservative Republicans made a show of holding the line on expanding the federal bureaucracy by voting to give the President the option of deciding whether to make baggage screeners federal employees. But they took pains to note that they, too, wanted airport security to be the federal government's responsibility.

"There's a misperception out there that we're arguing over federalization," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., on Nov. 13. In both the House and Senate bills, he noted, the federal government would take over the job of setting standards for baggage screening and for hiring security personnel. "That is the federalization," Lott said. In the end, the House accepted a deal negotiated with the Senate to create an agency of up to 30,000 employees to handle screening duties at almost all of the nation's airports.

It had, stunningly, become politically incorrect to oppose the biggest single expansion of the federal government in decades. "The argument against big government is probably less salient today than at any time in decades," political analyst Charlie Cook wrote in National Journal in November. "People want safe commercial air travel, regardless of the impact on the size of government or the cost. Period."

Bush administration officials certainly got the message. "One of the things that's changed so much since Sept. 11 is the extent to which people do trust the government-big shift-and value it, and have high expectations for what we do," said Vice President Dick Cheney in October. "People need help, and in a time of war, it is principally the government that is the best instrument to help people," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer the same month. Within days after the attacks, President Bush signed a $40 billion legislative package beefing up national security and homeland defense operations.

Almost instantly, the consensus across the political spectrum was: Uncle Sam is back. In a time of crisis and uncertainty, a new era of big government had dawned.

There are three problems with this bit of conventional wisdom, however: First, the old era of big government never really went away. Second, the return of government-in terms of widespread public support for activism at the federal level-may be taking place only in areas directly related to national security and homeland defense. Finally, big or small really isn't the issue. The question is whether the government is capable of being bold, decisive and effective, both in times of urgent need and in ordinary circumstances. And on that score, the dawn of the latest era of big government is cause for concern.

The Trust Numbers

The post-Sept. 11 reversal in public attitudes toward government was, at least on the surface, shocking. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in the last week of September showed that 64 percent of Americans said they trusted "the government in Washington to do what is right" just about always or most of the time. That was up from only 30 percent in April, the most recent time the news organizations had asked the question. The percentage of people who said they trusted government only some of the time or not at all dropped from 69 percent in April to 36 percent in late September.

In a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll conducted Sept. 14 and 15, 88 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the U.S. government to protect its citizens from future attacks. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted Sept. 19 and 20 found that 73 percent of respondents were "absolutely confident" or "pretty confident" in the United States' ability to handle the problem of terrorism.

"These figures are sort of pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate-era levels," says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "This is probably the greatest 'rally 'round the flag' effect since Pearl Harbor."

However, while the percentage of Americans who told Gallup they trust "the government in Washington" to do the right thing had been declining for decades prior to Sept. 11, the level of confidence in executive branch agencies has remained fairly steady. In surveys conducted before Sept. 11, 63 percent of Americans told Gallup they had a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the executive branch, while 36 percent said they had little or none. Those numbers are virtually unchanged since 1996, and are slightly higher than the previous time the question was asked in 1976.

Hamiltonian Government

In fact, while Americans' faith that their political representatives in Washington can be trusted waxes and wanes, their acceptance-if not love-for a strong, activist executive branch dates back to the earliest years of the republic. It's not going too far to suggest that 2001 was the bicentennial of American big government.

When Thomas Jefferson took office as the nation's third President in 1801, the short history of the United States was that of a clash between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and Jefferson's Republicans. Hamilton and the Federalists carried the day early on with their argument for "energy in the executive" and a strong national government. "It is both unwise and dangerous to deny the federal government an unconfined authority in respect to all those objects which are entrusted to its management," Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 24 in defense of the Constitution.

The Federalist view was clearly ascendant during George Washington's presidency. In his farewell address, Washington made the case for a dramatic expansion of the federal government, calling on Congress to build up the Navy to protect American shipping, create a national university and a national military academy, launch programs to promote both manufacturing industries and agriculture, and raise the pay of federal officials.

By the end of John Adams' term as Washington's successor, however, the backlash had set in. The Jefferson-led Republicans, with their staunch devotion to the will of the people and their persistent mistrust of government-especially the federal government-were ascendant. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson was expected to launch a counter-revolution against the Hamiltonian view and set the country on a new course. But he didn't.

"We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," Jefferson said. To be sure, he paid lip service to the idea of keeping the federal government under a tight rein. "A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."

But as historian H.W. Brands notes in his recent book, The Strange Death of American Liberalism, "subsequent actions suggested that [Jefferson's] devotion to minimalist government was at least partly rhetorical." After all, this was the President who doubled the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase and dramatically expanded the powers of the government by pushing the ill-fated Embargo Act, banning trade with Britain and France.

From the moment of Jefferson's inauguration, Americans decided to strike an uneasy balance: They would accept Hamilton's notion of a powerful, far-reaching federal establishment, but temper it with Jefferson's rhetoric about keeping government small, rigorously contained and as close to the people as possible.

As a result, notes historian Joseph Ellis, while Hamilton's vision has carried the day throughout American history, much of the credit has gone to Jefferson. The prime example is the Civil War, a thoroughly Hamiltonian exercise in establishing the sovereignty of the federal government over the states. But the leader of the winning side, Abraham Lincoln, took his inspiration directly from the writings of Jefferson, despite the latter's distinct lack of anti-slavery credentials.

Even more strikingly, during the 1930s, the man who launched an alphabet soup of new federal agencies under the rubric of the New Deal and took the role of the national government in the economy to unprecedented heights managed to pull off the feat of portraying his effort as an utterly Jeffersonian undertaking. "Franklin Roosevelt's political agenda was the epitome of everything that Jefferson despised and vilified as despotic," Ellis wrote in a recent essay in The New Yorker. "But Roosevelt simply, unabashedly, viscerally loved Jefferson"-to the point of leading the effort to establish a national monument to him in Washington.

In virtually every era of American history, the battle to limit the power of the federal government has been a rear-guard action, fought to ensure that Jeffersonian principles weren't completely ignored as the Hamiltonian power of the federal government expanded into uncharted territory. What Herbert Croly wrote in his classic 1909 argument for progressive national government, The Promise of American Life, has remained more or less true for nearly a century: "American government demands more rather than less centralization merely and precisely because of the growing centralization of American activity."

Revolutionary Rhetoric

Nevertheless, the theme of wresting power away from the dreaded central government continues to resonate in America, most recently playing a key role in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

"We propose to cede back power from the hallowed halls of Congress to the more hallowed kitchen tables of America," said soon-to-be-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, when House Republicans unveiled their small-government manifesto, the Contract With America, in 1994. "Our contract recognizes the limits of government and the unlimited contribution of husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children and grandparents in a safe and prosperous America."

But even on paper, the GOP's effort was hardly revolutionary. "Make no mistake: The Contract with America is a big government-and a big government from Washington-document," wrote scholars Donald F. Kettl and John DiIulio in a 1995 Brookings Institution analysis. The Contract, they concluded, "would maintain a large federal policy-making, administrative and funding role in crime policy, environmental management and many other areas where, as late as 1950, the federal government did little or almost nothing."

In practice, the Republican takeover was even less revolutionary than the document on which it was based. In early 1995, a group of House Republican freshmen who had swept into office in the GOP takeover launched a campaign to "privatize, localize, consolidate [or] eliminate" the functions of the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy and Housing and Urban Development. At last count, all of those departments were still going strong-and have, in fact, taken on new responsibilities.

The failure of House Republicans to gain much traction for their attack on the federal establishment didn't stop President Clinton from famously declaring in his 1996 State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over." But the fact is, the era of big government never ended, unless government is defined very narrowly as the number of people drawing a paycheck from Uncle Sam. Paul Light's research has shown that while the federal civilian workforce has declined by more than 400,000 jobs in the past 15 years, the number of private contractors providing services to federal agencies has grown by roughly 500,000, to more than 4 million.

New Golden Age?

In his 1999 book Government's End, Jonathan Rauch, a writer in residence at the Brookings Institution and columnist at National Journal, argued that the federal government had proved it could do four things well: Prepare for and wage war; build big national infrastructure projects; set up basic safety-net programs and write checks to citizens; and set minimum standards of political and social freedom. But as the millennium ended, the nation was beset with a series of social and moral problems that the central government was ill-equipped to solve. "Washington's golden age, a roughly 30-year period beginning with the New Deal, is over, for good," Rauch wrote.

Could it be that a new golden age has dawned a mere two years later?

In The Strange Death of American Liberalism, Brands argues that in times of war-including the Cold War-Americans tend to become more liberal in their attitudes toward government and trust it to undertake a wide variety of tasks, as long as they are tangentially related to national security.

John F. Kennedy, he notes, "made the link between liberalism and the Cold War explicit from the beginning of his administration." Since Sept. 11, many politicians-especially on the liberal end of the spectrum-have used the cover of the war on terrorism to attack the conservative approach to problem-solving and to push for a broad new federal role in a variety of areas. "The notion of letting a thousand different ideas compete and flourish-which works so well to create goods and services-does not work at all in the face of a national emergency," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote in The Washington Post in December. "Unity of action and purpose is required, and only the federal government can provide it."

In an appearance at the Cato Institute in Washington in late November, Brands said that while the war on terrorism bears some resemblance to the Cold War-in that it is a broad-based, open-ended effort against an ideology rather than a specific enemy-it was too soon to know whether the reaction to Sept. 11 would cause a lasting shift in the size and role of government.

"The truism that war drives government growth is not as true as it used to be," Rauch said at the same event. The war, he argued, was more likely to re-prioritize existing government efforts, rather than add new ones-and it had already knocked some very large government initiatives, such as enacting a "patient's bill of rights," off the national radar screen.

At a seminar conducted by the Gallup Poll in Washington in November, Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University, argued that the post-Sept. 11 polls should not be read as a broad endorsement of federal activism. "I don't think there's been any sea change about attitudes toward the role of government in social issues or the economy," Wayne said.

"It's not so much trust in government but hope in government that is triumphing," added Bill Schneider, a polling expert and senior political analyst at CNN. The "dirty little secret" of polling, Schneider said, is that "people try to give the right answer" to questions asked by pollsters. After the terrorist attacks hit home, he said, the correct answer was an attitude he characterized as "defiant optimism." In the event of another large-scale terrorist attack, Schneider said, "public support [for government] could very quickly evaporate."

Airport Insecurity

"Today there is not much chance to create a new agency; almost every agency one can imagine already has been created," wrote political scientist James Q. Wilson in his 1989 book Bureaucracy. The events of Sept. 11 suddenly expanded the national imagination when it came to building new bureaucracies. And the first agency that resulted, the Transportation Security Administration, provides some ominous warning signs about future efforts to create bold and effective federal organizations.

The TSA flies in the face of recent thinking in both the private and public sectors about how to devise effective and well-managed organizations to tackle major problems. The best organizations set clear goals, are allowed the maximum of managerial flexibility in achieving them, and rigorously measure their performance along the way.

The airport security debate took place over a matter of a few weeks, with very little serious consideration of the management implications of what Congress was about to do. Exceptions were few: Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., successfully made the case for including a system of rewards and punishments for performance at the new agency. The Bush administration crafted a case for allowing the Transportation Department to determine the optimal way to provide baggage-screening services-whether through a public or private workforce, or a combination of the two. But then administration officials undercut their own effort by announcing that the President would support virtually any proposal Congress passed.

The bill Congress ultimately approved contained provisions that were designed not to give the agency the best shot at successfully managing its mission, but to temporarily reassure the flying public that it was safe to get on planes. The law not only mandated that screeners be federal employees (at least for the next few years), but required that they be United States citizens, speak English and have high school diplomas or equivalent training. TSA also was ordered to implement a system for screening not just carry-on bags, but all checked luggage as well, within 60 days.

It will be difficult to quickly hire a baggage screening force that meets the law's restrictions. At Dulles International Airport near Washington, for example, a large percentage of screeners in the private sector security workforce are not U.S. citizens. As for the checked-luggage deadline, Transportation and industry officials had to scramble to cobble together a system that barely met Congress's requirements.

In addition, it quickly became clear after the TSA was created that the fees established in the bill to fund the new security system would not be enough to cover all of the requirements in the law. That means the TSA is likely to be in the same unenviable position as almost every other federal agency: forced to battle for the resources and staff to fulfill a daunting mission.

To make matters worse, contrary to popular belief, that mission is not purely to provide a law enforcement presence at airport security checkpoints. Shortly before Mineta named John Magaw, a federal law enforcement veteran, to head the TSA, he made it clear that the new chief would have to be concerned about customer satisfaction as well. Mineta set a goal of keeping the wait at checkpoints to 10 minutes. So the TSA will have the same problem the Federal Aviation Administration had when it was in charge of overseeing airport security: Trying to balance the concerns of the airlines and their passengers about keeping the system moving quickly against the need to provide effective security.

Suppose, God forbid, there's another terrorist attack involving an aircraft. We can expect congressional hearings on why TSA bureaucrats bungled the security job. Suppose on the other hand, there are no new terrorist incidents involving airplanes, yet the TSA continues to perform the law enforcement function set out for it by conducting far more thorough searches. Then we can expect hearings about why TSA bureaucrats are forcing passengers to wait in unnecessarily long lines.

The TSA, in fundamental ways, has been set up to fail. If it does, the latest chapter in the long history of American big government will not be a happy one.