A System Under Stress

o most observers overseas-not to mention those here at home-America's democratic system must have seemed totally chaotic during the long and litigious weeks following November's presidential election.

First, there was the disconcerting prospect of having the candidate with the most votes end up the loser. While Democrat Al Gore held a clear if narrow lead in the nationwide balloting, the all-important arithmetic of the electoral college appeared to favor Republican George W. Bush. Next, there was the extremely tenuous nature of Bush's razor-thin margin in the pivotal state of Florida, whose 25 electoral votes would determine the winner of the presidency. And finally, there was the numbing realization that the final resolution rested upon the outcome of a welter of acrimonious lawsuits.

As the television cameras and the lawyers focused on Florida, a dismaying tide of allegations suggested that the vote-counting process in several critical counties was fraught with error. Advocates for Gore raced to state courts to seek more time for manual ballot inspections that they thought might put their man ahead. Barristers for Bush, not surprisingly, fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to finalize the counting while their man still held the lead.

The low turnout and indecisive result, followed by inflammatory public relations tactics, hardball legal maneuvers by partisans on both sides and the threat of intervention by the Florida legislature, did not offer up a very pretty picture. When all the arguments over dimpled chads and missing postmarks have ended, Americans will long ponder the unsettling message that every vote really does count, but not every vote is necessarily counted.

Preparations for a new administration were complicated. Federal funds and office space for presidential transition activities were denied to either candidate until the Florida-spawned litigation had run its course. In the meantime, Republicans and Democrats sparred in Washington over how to divide power in a Senate in which each political party might hold exactly 50 seats.

But when the new President takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, Americans-some more grudgingly than others-can be expected to close ranks behind him and urge Washington to get on with the nation's business. If the truncated transition process has delayed the installation of a full team of political appointees, executives of the career civil service may have to fill in on an acting basis wherever needed.

Despite all of the doomsday talk of a humbled President who lacks a popular mandate, and of continued gridlock in a narrowly divided Congress, it's important to remember that the government, like a great ocean liner, is slow to lose speed or drastically change course. The civil servants who administer government programs at all levels provide ballast that helps keep the ship of state on an even keel.

"The bureaucracy is grounded in notions of stability, continuity and regularity, without which a nation of laws becomes one merely of capricious power-holders," wrote political scientists Joel D. Aberbach and Bert A. Rockman in a study the Brookings Institution published last year. The bureaucracy shifts eventually "to reflect changing political tastes and preferences," they note, but seldom as quickly as political overseers desire.

While election victories-narrow or wide-shift policy decisions in favor of one philosophical viewpoint or another, the essential function of government-and the real genius of our multi-layered, multi-branched system-is to enable balances to be struck between competing legitimate interests. It is a continuing process in which even those who perceive themselves as losers can seek remedy or recourse somewhere in the system.

As a journalist covering federal affairs since the waning days of the Ford administration, I've become acutely aware that government's effort to reconcile differences tends to be an ongoing and open-ended process. Policy disputes are seldom permanently resolved, but instead recur again and again in one form or another.

My first Washington reporting assignment in 1976, for example, involved a controversy over federal efforts to curb water pollution by requiring permits that regulated the dredging and filling of wetlands. In response to complaints that farmers would be harmed, however, lands in agricultural use were exempted from the requirement.

Four presidencies later, farmers are up in arms over a federal clean water proposal requiring that they obtain permits for the discharge of manure and other livestock wastes. A relatively obscure news report recently noted that state officials in Michigan were fighting Washington over the new rules because they feared some farmers would be put out of business. In the midst of the partisan turmoil over November's election, that news story was a welcome reminder of government's role in the crucial effort to strike balances between differing national interests. That healthy jockeying will continue no matter how stressful and chaotic the political warfare that may rage from time to time.

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