Two weeks before George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, the Heritage Foundation issued a paper offering the new president advice on “taking charge of federal personnel.”
The authors — two former officials at the Office of Personnel Management and a former congressional staffer who is now at OPM — laid out an ambitious agenda to overhaul civil service rules and “reassert managerial control of government.” The paper emphasized the importance of appointing strong leaders to key government positions and holding bureaucrats “personally accountable for achievement of the president’s election-endorsed and value-defined program.”
Reminded of this paper recently, co-author Robert Moffit, who has moved on to other issues at Heritage, dusted off a copy and called a reporter back with a hint of rejoicing in his voice. “They apparently are really doing this stuff,” he said.
To Moffit and other proponents of strong management, the Bush White House has indeed initiated a dramatic transformation of the federal bureaucracy, trying to create a leaner, more results-oriented government that can better account for taxpayer dollars. Reshaping the agenda of government to match the president’s priorities is the purpose of democratic elections, Moffit said.
But critics charge that the White House is embarking on a crusade to replace expert judgment in federal agencies with political calculation, to marginalize or eliminate longtime civil servants, to change laws without going through Congress, to silence dissenting views within the government, and to centralize decision-making in the White House.
“A president cannot wave a wand and wipe prior policy, as implemented by duly enacted statutes, off the books,” said Rena Steinzor, a founder and board member of the Center for Progressive Regulation, a think tank of liberal academics. “We have made a judgment as a nation, for decades, that an independent bureaucracy is very important.” The Bush administration, she said, is “politicizing and terrorizing the bureaucracy, and turning it 180 degrees.”
Critics point to a long list of manifestations of greater White House control. Among them:
- Reorganizations in various federal agencies, such as major staff cuts anticipated at NASA, that eliminate career civil service staff, or replace managers with political appointees;
- New management systems to grade federal agencies on the results they achieve, with the White House in charge of defining “success”;
- Increased White House oversight of regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, and other departments and agencies;
- The president’s proposal to replace the civil service employment system with new, government-wide “pay-for-performance” rules that make it easier for managers to promote, reward, or fire employees;
- “Competitive sourcing” requirements that force thousands of federal workers to compete against private contractors to keep their jobs;
- A series of steps that may weaken traditional watchdogs and the office that protects whistle-blowers;
- New restrictions on the public release of government information, including a huge jump in the number of documents labeled “classified”;
- A growing cadre of government employees who are going public with charges that their recommendations were ignored, their reports edited, or their conclusions reversed by their political-appointee managers, at the behest of the White House.
Clay Johnson, who as deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget is the point man for Bush’s “management agenda,” denied any “Republican conspiracy” to control the bureaucracy or silence civil servants. “It’s about things working better; it’s not about controlling,” Johnson said. “The thing that we can impose more of than anything else is clarity — clarity of purpose. We want to have a real clear definition of what success is,” he said.
“The overall goal of all that we are doing,” Johnson added, “is, we want to get to the point in three or four years where we can say to the American taxpayer that every program is getting better every year.”
The federal bureaucracy is a notoriously unwieldy beast. It includes about 1.9 million civilian employees, many of whom have agendas that differ from the president’s. Each administration, Republican or Democratic, struggles with its relationship with an army of workers who were on the job before the new political team arrived, and who expect to be there after the team leaves.
“You have this bizarre cycle, where the leader comes into the room and says, ‘We are going to march north,’ and the bureaucracy all applaud,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. “Then the leader leaves the room, and the bureaucracy says, ‘Yeah, well, this “march north” thing is terrific, but this year, to be practical, we have to keep marching south. But what we’ll do is, we’ll hire a consultant to study marching north, so that next year we can begin to think about whether or not we can do it.’ “
The White House is proud of its management initiatives and Bush’s reputation as “the M.B.A. president.” The administration regularly issues press releases to announce progress on the President’s Management Agenda — a list of priorities that includes competitive sourcing and development of “e-government.” And Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget includes cuts based on performance assessments for hundreds of individual federal programs. But critics fear that the management agenda, combined with an array of other administration initiatives, has established a framework that makes it easier for political appointees to overrule, marginalize, or even fire career employees who question the president’s agenda.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule earlier this month to regulate emissions of mercury from power plants. In unveiling the rule, the EPA asserted that it represents the most stringent controls on mercury ever issued. According to the agency, the requirements are cost-effective, will achieve significant health benefits, and will create an economic incentive for companies to continually improve their environmental performance.
But the rule is driven by the Bush administration’s novel — some say, illegal — interpretation of the Clean Air Act that allows the EPA to avoid imposing mandatory emissions controls on each facility. Environmentalists, and some EPA staff, contend that the mercury rule is far weaker than one the Clinton administration proposed, and that political appointees at the agency ignored the scientific and legal judgment of career staff to push the rule through the regulatory process.
The battle over the mercury rule has been bitter and public. Many other efforts to tighten central control are buried deep within the bowels of the bureaucracy.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is not generally a political hotbed. A division of the Agriculture Department, the NRCS — working through “conservationist” offices in each state — is responsible for helping farmers implement soil and water conservation measures, such as restoring wetlands, building dams, and designing systems to prevent animal waste from running off into waterways.
In a major reorganization over the past two years, NRCS chief Bruce Knight eliminated the service’s six regional offices, which were headed by career managers and oversaw the state offices. He replaced the six regional managers with three political appointees in Washington and shuffled 200 career staffers from the regional offices into other offices throughout the agency.
Knight said the reorganization is “really just a strong business case.” It created a “flatter, leaner structure” that relies much more heavily on the expertise of the state conservationists and makes better use of employees, he said. “I had about 200 highly valuable [employees] scattered around the country, and I needed to put them at the mission of the agency.”
But in so doing, Knight has also raised concerns about the independence of the technical staffers who oversee conservation measures across the country.
Under the new structure, career NRCS scientists might worry that their technical decisions about where to spend money and how to implement programs will be overruled for political purposes, said Rich Duesterhaus, a former NRCS staffer and now director of government affairs for the National Association of Conservation Districts.
“They clearly now have a direct line from the politically appointed chief, through these three politically appointed regional assistant chiefs, to the line officers who supervise and carry out these programs,” Duesterhaus said. And why should political control over a soil and water conservation agency matter? Because the 2002 farm bill doubled the NRCS’s budget for assistance to farmers, from about $1.5 billion in 2001 to $2.8 billion in 2006, with a total increase of $18 billion slated through 2012.
“In the old days, the money wasn’t big enough to matter,” Duesterhaus said, but the influx of cash in 2002 has made the NRCS “a contender in terms of spoils, and where those spoils go becomes an issue.” With direct political oversight of the state conservationists, Duesterhaus said, “it becomes a little easier to say, ‘Well, we need Ohio, so make sure we put a little extra money in Ohio.’ “
Earlier this month, Charles Adams, one of the six career regional conservationists who were unseated in the reorganization, filed a discrimination complaint against Knight and other agency officials, arguing that the reorganization derailed his 37-year career in favor of three political appointees with far less expertise. “I allege that … a calculated, arbitrary, and capricious decision was made to preclude me from the line and leadership of this agency,” Adams wrote in his complaint to the Agriculture Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
Knight rejects any suggestion that he has politicized the work of a technical agency. “The real power is in the state conservationist, the career individual in the state who manages the budget and the people,” he said. “Most people will agree that we are more scientifically and technologically based now” than before the reorganization. The agency has about 12,500 staff members and only a dozen political appointees, Knight said.
But employees in other federal agencies have also asserted that reorganization plans have bumped career managers from senior positions, or diluted their authority.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is instituting a major overhaul that will create a new layer of “coordinating centers” — including a strategic center responsible for developing long-term goals for the agency — between CDC Director Julie Gerberding and the health and science centers that formerly reported directly to her. Gerberding said, “I don’t think our goal is to have control over the organization — our goal is to have an impact on health.”
But some career staffers say they are being pushed aside and losing the ability to manage their programs. The Washington Post earlier this month reported a memo from a top CDC official warning that CDC employees are suffering a “crisis of confidence” and that they feel “cowed into silence.” CDC aides — who are unwilling to have their names published for fear of reprisals — say they are losing the ability to make independent professional judgments on topics ranging from sexual abstinence, to drug use, to influenza. Gerberding replied, “I think that is a very inaccurate assessment of what is going on at CDC.”
Nevertheless, throughout the federal government, complaints can be heard from disgruntled civil servants who feel they are being elbowed aside by the political leadership — though it is hard to assess whether the invariably anonymous sources have been targeted for elimination or are simply frightened of the change.
Some of the administration’s efforts have attracted congressional scrutiny. On March 16, the House Science panel’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee held a hearing on the administration’s plan to slash funding for aeronautics research at NASA and to eliminate 2,000 jobs in order to focus the agency on the president’s “Vision for Space Exploration,” which includes the goal of manned missions to Mars.
But the administration is not backing down. In fact, it wants more authority to carry out these reorganizations. The White House has said it is drafting legislative proposals to create a “sunset” process requiring federal programs to rejustify their existence every 10 years and to set up “reform” commissions giving the president authority to initiate major restructuring of programs. House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said in an interview this month that he believes that Congress should restore the president’s unilateral authority to reorganize executive branch agencies — authority that presidents held from the late 1930s until 1984, and that Nixon used when he created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Beyond its tinkering with organizational structures, the White House is pursuing a sweeping overhaul of personnel rules that is aimed at giving managers across the federal government more flexibility to promote, punish, or fire hundreds of thousands of civil servants. While a proposed transformation of the pay systems at the Defense and Homeland Security departments has spurred vigorous debate — fueled by the administration’s announcement in January that it wants to extend these systems to the rest of the federal government — less fanfare attended last year’s rollout of a new pay-for-performance plan for the roughly 6,000 veteran federal government managers who constitute the Senior Executive Service.
Together, the two new approaches give political appointees in federal agencies greater authority to reward or discipline senior career managers, and give managers the same authority over the civil servants below them. The White House calls this a “modern” personnel system, where everyone is judged on results. Critics call it a process for weeding out recalcitrant civil servants or political opponents.
The new pay-for-performance plan for the Senior Executive Service eliminates annual raises for top career managers and replaces them with a system of merit ratings. Some career executives fear that the system will allow the White House to simply push aside managers who are unenthusiastic about the president’s agenda.
“We all know that performance is in the eyes of the beholder, no matter what you say about wanting to have many numerical indicators and so forth,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents members of the SES. “The concern is that if you know that your boss has the total authority to not give you a pay raise, are you going to be more inclined to skirt an ethics requirement for them? Are you going to be more inclined to do what is perhaps not really right?”
And the layers of performance ratings based on the president’s goals serve to reinforce the agenda throughout the bureaucracy, Bonosaro said. “You kick the general, and the general comes back and kicks the soldiers, and it goes down the line.”
In another move, which could affect thousands of civil servants, Bush has made “competitive sourcing” one of his primary management goals for federal agencies, requiring government workers to compete for their jobs against private contractors.
In January, OMB reported that government employees had won about 90 percent of the 30,000 jobs awarded in 2003 and 2004, with decisions still to be made on about 15,000 jobs offered for competition in those years. But in February, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that Lockheed Martin had won the government’s largest-ever job competition, covering about 2,300 flight-service jobs. FAA workers slated to be displaced under the contract filed an appeal this month, complaining that the agency’s bidding process was flawed.
“Everything they do is sending the signal [to employees] that they can be replaced easily by contractors, if the work they do isn’t done by whatever standards the president is going to put out in his new measurement system,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
“It’s all about putting more power in the hands of the appointees and making it easier to downgrade, get rid of, use the rules as a weapon against employees who are not in lockstep with you,” said Mark Roth, general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees.
OMB’s Johnson denies any intent to enforce political orthodoxy on the civil service. “Rewarding people for their political views is against the law. It’s like incest: verboten. Not allowed. Doesn’t happen,” Johnson said.
“You are being encouraged, and evaluated, and mentored, and managed, and held accountable for doing things that the administration considers to be important,” he said. “That does not mean vote Republican versus Democrat; that doesn’t mean be pro-life or pro-choice, or be for strict-constructionist judges, or be against strict-constructionist judges,” Johnson contended.
“We are controlling what the definition of success is, but shame on us if that’s a bad idea. I think it’s a really good idea,” Johnson said. “It is a mind-set and an approach, and it is a focus on results that [the president] is imposing. It’s not ‘I want everyone to be like me and have the same political beliefs as me.’ “
Checks and Balances
But what if “incest” does happen? Where would a civil servant go to report “verboten” behavior?
Critics of the administration charge that the White House is tampering with the independent structures that protect against waste, fraud, abuse, and political retribution — the federal inspectors general and the Office of General Counsel. The White House vehemently denies the charge.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, issued a report last October — and updated it in January — declaring that the Bush administration was appointing inspectors general with political connections to the White House much more frequently than the Clinton administration did. Working with a very small sample — 11 IGs appointed by Bush, 32 appointed by Clinton — Waxman’s report concludes that 64 percent of the Bush appointees had political experience on their resumes, and only 18 percent had audit experience. For the Clinton appointees, the ratios were reversed: 22 percent had political backgrounds, 66 percent had audit experience.
Gaston Gianni, who until his retirement in December was the Clinton-appointed inspector general at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and vice chairman of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency — an IG professional group — said, “I’ve read the Waxman report. Factually, it’s correct. The conclusions, I don’t think flow from the facts.”
Gianni said it is true that the Bush administration is favoring political background rather than investigative experience in appointing IGs, but he said there is no evidence that the people Bush has appointed have any less independence or zeal for their work.
Nevertheless, Gianni said, the practice worries him. “The environment is such, as we go forward, that the perception will be that, rather than ‘small-p’ political appointees, they are going to become ‘capital-P’ Political appointees. Even though nothing else has changed, that is what the perception will be.”
Steinzor and NYU’s Light agree that the White House has generally sent the message to inspectors that an excess of independence may be bad for their careers.
Last July, Johnson and Gianni signed a memo to inspectors general and agency heads, spelling out the “working relationship principles” for both positions and emphasizing the need for mutual respect, objectivity, and communication between an IG and his or her agency head. Johnson serves as the chairman of the president’s council on integrity, and the memo was his idea. Some critics read it as a warning to IGs not to be too aggressive, but Johnson denies any such message.
“The IGs should not be, by definition, adversarial agents,” Johnson said. “They are there to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. The heads of agency are there to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. The IGs, by definition, are for positive change…. Where you get into disagreements is when somebody tries to constantly play ‘gotcha,’ or where the IG gets a little too enamored of their independent status and tries to do things in a negative fashion, tries to uproot things, or identify things that will hurt the agency,” he said. “The IG is there to help the agency.”
Johnson said that he had recommended the “relationship principles” to the professional group, but that IGs and agency officials drafted the principles.
Light said there is nothing untoward about principles extolling the virtues of communication and common decency, but he argued that the memo — together with the pattern noted in the Waxman report and some high-profile firings of IGs early in the Bush administration — sets a tone that may have a chilling effect on inspectors.
Johnson dismisses this concern. “I don’t think there is any information that suggests that the IGs are less critical than they have been. I don’t think there is anything that says they are finding less waste, fraud, and abuse, that they are being less effective IGs as a result of this ‘Republican conspiracy.’ “
The Office of Special Counsel is a bigger concern for administration critics. Established as an independent agency charged with protecting whistle-blowers and civil servants who are mistreated for political or other reasons unconnected with their performance, the office is in a bitter feud with several of its employees who argue that they are being punished for resisting attempts by Bush’s appointee to dismantle the operation.
Among other things, current and former employees charge that Special Counsel Scott Bloch has summarily dismissed hundreds of whistle-blower complaints, instigated a reorganization of the office that will significantly increase political control of investigations, and forced senior staff members critical of his work to choose between relocating to regional offices or being fired. Several anonymous employees, joined by four public-interest groups, filed formal charges against Bloch on March 3, and at least half a dozen staff members have resigned or been fired for refusing to relocate.
Bloch characterizes the complaints against his office as the work of a few disgruntled employees, reinforced by groups that are on a mission to embarrass the White House. Together, these critics are “going out and making reckless allegations that have no truth. They don’t like the success Bush officials are having in dealing with the bureaucracy,” Bloch said. “They don’t want a Bush appointee like myself to get credit” for reducing a large backlog of old cases that were languishing when Bloch took office in 2004. “We have doubled our enforcement over prior years in all areas,” Bloch said. His critics “hurl accusations at the office and basically say insulting things about their fellow employees, and they are false.”
Levers of Government
An Interior Department official who has worked in the federal government for 30 years denied that the White House is trying to marginalize the civil service, arguing that what people are seeing is simply better executive management from the White House.
“This administration runs a more effective management of the government than did the previous administration, which was a lot more loosey-goosey,” this person said, requesting anonymity to speak freely about his bosses. “They bring more of a business mind-set, but I don’t think that’s a particularly bad thing. They are more organized, and they are smart about it.”
The sharper management focus extends into the minutiae of government, giving the White House oversight and control of the executive branch at several levels. In some cases, the Bush administration is creating new approaches, but in most cases, officials are simply using authorities created under prior administrations and applying them more aggressively.
For example, Clinton issued a regulatory-review executive order in 1993, charging OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs with ensuring that regulations “are consistent with applicable law [and] the president’s priorities.” The order emphasized use of the best available science and the most cost-effective approach to regulations.
The Bush administration has built on this executive order, setting new requirements for reviewing the costs and benefits of regulatory proposals, establishing a higher threshold for reaching scientific certainty in regulatory decisions, and creating new opportunities for outside experts to challenge the government’s conclusions about the dangers that a rule is designed to mitigate.
A regulatory agency career official who demanded anonymity said that OIRA, under the Bush administration, is “much more active” in the regulatory process. “They get involved much earlier in the process on large rules,” the official said. “They are reviewing drafts of preambles as they are being written for some rules, or sections of rules.”
The executive order gives OMB 90 days to review agency rules, but OIRA Administrator John Graham said in an e-mail response to a reporter’s query: “During an important rule-making, OIRA may work informally with agencies at the early stages of the rule-making. This early OIRA participation is designed to make sure that our benefit-cost perspective receives a fair hearing, before key decisions are made and final documents are drafted.”
Graham added, “A key benefit of early OIRA involvement is that the pace of rule-making is accelerated by building consensus early in the process and avoiding contentious delays beyond the 90-day review period.” He said that the majority of OMB staffers are career civil servants with significant expertise in their issue areas and that, contrary to the assumptions of many critics, OMB involvement does not always result in an outcome that is more favorable to industry. For example, he said, OMB initiated a Food and Drug Administration rule-making to require that producers add the trans-fat content of foods to nutritional labels.
Sally Katzen, who held both John Graham’s job and Clay Johnson’s job during her years in the Clinton administration, said, “There is nothing wrong with more-centralized review, guidance, and oversight. It is, after all, a president — singular — who is the head of the executive branch.” But, she cautioned, “the problems we face are often highly technical or otherwise highly complicated, and those who serve in the White House or OMB do not have all the answers. And they certainly don’t have the manpower, the expertise, or the intimate familiarity with the underlying detail. They cannot — and, in my mind, should not — replace the agency expertise, the agency knowledge, and the agency experience.”
While OIRA serves as the central regulatory-review office for the White House, OMB has also positioned itself as the central performance-accountability office, with the establishment of the “President’s Management Agenda” and the Program Assessment Rating Tool, or PART, under which the White House grades every agency and program on the basis of its management activities and real-world results. After several years of conducting the assessments without imposing any real consequences for failure, the administration, in the first budget proposal of Bush’s second term, used the results assessments to justify eliminating or significantly reducing funding for about 150 federal programs.
John Kamensky, who was deputy director of the National Performance Review (the “reinventing government” initiative) in the Clinton administration, said that Bush’s White House is, in many ways, simply expanding on efforts begun in the previous administration.
“We had proposed, in the Clinton administration, tying performance to budget, but there wasn’t enough performance information to do that. The Bush administration has that information, finally, so it’s sort of a natural progression,” Kamensky said.
But critics worry that the review process gives the administration the opportunity to establish its own measures of success for programs, without taking into account the requirements established by Congress.
For example, OMB’s review declared the Housing and Urban Development Department’s Community Development Block Grant program “ineffective,” charging that its mission is unclear, it has few measures of success, and it “does not effectively target funds to the most-needy communities.”
But a study by a National Academy of Public Administration panel in February disputed OMB’s assessment. The program’s “statutory mission or purpose seems clear,” the panel said. As a block grant, CDBG is able to fund a broad range of community-development functions, and “if the CDBG program lacks clarity, it is likely because the statute intended it so,” according to the report. The breadth of the program’s activities makes it difficult to provide specific measures of success, the panel concluded, and the White House suggestion that funding be geographically targeted “seems to contradict the statute’s intent.”
Donald Plusquellic, mayor of Akron, Ohio, and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, defends the CDBG program. “I can evaluate anything as a failure if I get to set up the standards,” he said.
Johnson acknowledges that CDBG fails the test in part because the administration is applying a new definition of success. “We believe the goal of housing programs is not just to build houses, but the economic development that comes with them. So those are the results we want to focus on,” Johnson said. “You can say we are imposing our political views on people, or our favored views of the housing world or the CDBG world on people. Well, guilty as charged. It’s important to focus on outcomes, not outputs.”
The president has proposed to eliminate the $4 billion block-grant program and shift its functions into a new community and economic development initiative in the Commerce Department. The Senate voted 66-32 last week for a budget amendment designed to block the administration plan.
NYU’s Light says the administration has instituted a host of other procedures that centralize power in the White House, ranging from a vetting process for political appointees that allows little independent decision-making for Cabinet officials, to regular conference calls between the White House and the agency chiefs of staff that help to “focus [the staffers’] attention up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, and away from down in your department.”
But is that a bad thing? The Heritage Foundation’s Moffit doesn’t think so. “Why would that be anything other than 100 percent American?” Moffit asks. “I elected a president, and I expect the president to run the executive branch of the government. And there is an issue about whether he is? That’s absurd.”
The role of the civil service is “to make the car run,” Moffit said. “And if they have been driving the car east for the past 25 years of their professional life, but the president says, ‘Fine, I know you’ve been going east, but now we’re going to go west; you’re going to do a 180-degree turn and go in exactly the opposite direction,’ their job is to make sure the car goes exactly in the opposite direction. Nobody elected them to do anything else.”
Roth of the American Federation of Government Employees disagrees. “You do not entirely change your entire focus every time a president is elected, because it is not the job of the president to pass the laws. It is the job of the president to execute the laws,” Roth said. “These laws are on the books, these programs are in regulations.” An administration “can’t just say, ‘We don’t like it, so don’t do it.’ “