Excess Baggage

When the outgoing Republican Congress failed to enact appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began October 1, all of their difficult spending decisions were left squarely on the shoulders of the new Democratic majority. Journalists and their sources invoked apt metaphors of sabotage. As David Rogers of The Wall Street Journal wrote: "Like a retreating army, Republicans are tearing up railroad track and planting legislative land mines to make it harder for Democrats to govern when they take power in Congress next month."

Rogers might just as well have been describing the entirety of what conservatives have been doing to both the executive and legislative branches of government for the past six years. It is crucial to understand that it's not merely Republicans' incompetence or political pandering that has left the government in shambles. Rather, many of their acts of sabotage were premeditated, often hatched in right-wing think tanks. The central if unstated mission of those idea factories, and their leading funders, is to weaken the public sector in order to minimize its capacity to tax and regulate the private sector. But because the general public doesn't actually share conservatism's deep hostility toward government, their most effective tactics rely on subterfuge and operate in ways that can't be easily detected.

As we all know, the two most damaging actions on the conservative Republican watch -- the Iraq invasion and the huge tax cuts for the rich -- together will saddle future administrations and Congresses with large budget shortfalls, long-term burdens on the economy generally, a depleted military and diminished international credibility. Both of those ideas were heartily endorsed by movement conservatives years before Bush took office. While they were carried out in the full light of day, the rationales provided for both relied on sheer mendacity. In the case of the tax cuts, the same bogus justifications that failed to come to pass during the Reagan era -- supply-side shibboleths, purported financial benefits for average Americans, a supposed streamlined budget -- were trotted out again to provide cover for the right's actual agenda: paying off wealthy contributors while burying the war-preoccupied government under heaps of debt.

Those are the blockbuster efforts. The real artfulness of the conservative movement's attacks on government, though, can be seen in subtler approaches that work like termite infestations.

One example is "smart regulation," a term the right ingeniously co-opted from the Clinton administration. Conservatives redefined it to mean, in practice, pretending to write and enforce regulations while doing nothing of the kind. Agencies responsible for implementing environmental and public health and safety laws have basically downshifted to idle under Bush. For example, OMB Watch compared the productivity of four important regulatory agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration -- in George W. Bush's first term with the agencies' performance under his predecessors. Looking back, those agencies approved 74 "economically significant" rules under George H.W. Bush, 55 for the first Bill Clinton term, and 51 for the second. In George W. Bush's first term, just 25 significant rules emerged from those agencies. For the EPA alone, the major regulatory output dropped from 40 in the first Clinton term to 11 under Bush. That passivity has created an enormous backlog for future administrations to deal with.

John Graham, a hero of the conservative movement who ran the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in Bush's Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to March 2006, instituted a wide assortment of administrative innovations all designed to further slow down and complicate the process of issuing regulations. Under the Data Quality Act of 2000, which two conservative legislators snuck into a huge appropriations bill in the waning days of the Clinton administration, Graham imposed a mind-bogglingly cumbersome set of new guidelines that enable regulated companies to challenge any data disseminated by agencies throughout every stage of their rule-making processes -- not just after proposed regulations are published. His rules also required the agencies to respond to those outside challenges along the way, and for OMB to become involved in disagreements, threatening to further bog down the already painfully slow regulatory process. Moreover, outside "peer review" would be required of "highly influential scientific assessments" -- those that could lead to rules having a financial impact of more than $500 million a year -- or if "the dissemination is novel, controversial, or precedent-setting, or has significant interagency interest." In other words, peer review will be imposed whenever OMB sees fit to impose it. It is unlikely that those paralyzing rules will be dropped even after the Bush team finally hangs it up, as regulated companies that contribute abundantly to political campaigns have a huge stake in sustaining them. (Thomas O. McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and David Bollier wrote a book about the conservative movement's regulatory approach titled, appropriately enough: Sophisticated Sabotage: The Intellectual Games Used to Subvert Responsible Regulation.)

Another example is the politicization of federal agencies. Around the time of Bush's inaugural in 2001, the Heritage Foundation produced a number of op-eds and reports urging him to rely heavily on political appointees so that he could better assert control over a "bulky, balky bureaucracy." The more individuals running government agencies who share the mindset of those who work at Heritage, the more readily they would be able to impose the conservative agenda -- including diminished enforcement of environmental, health, and safety regulations. And, sure enough, the Bush administration followed Heritage's advice. Princeton University political scientist David E. Lewis, reviewing data from the Office of Personnel Management, found that the number of political appointments escalated during the first term of the Bush administration after declining substantially during Clinton's eight years. From 1992 to 2000, political appointees in the federal government dropped by nearly 17 percent -- from 3,423 to 2,845. From 2000 to 2004, that figure climbed back up by 12.5 percent to 3,202.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a poster child for the damage that excessive politicization can cause at the hands of conservatives hostile to government. Under the successful management of James Lee Witt during the Clinton administration, FEMA transformed from a turkey farm for cronies into an effective agency widely praised by both Democrats and Republicans. Witt's unqualified successors, Joseph Allbaugh and Michael "Brownie" Brown, relied heavily on other politically appointed ideologues as the agency deteriorated to the level of ineptitude that Americans witnessed in horror after Hurricane Katrina. Similar politicization is pervasive throughout the executive branch, with comparably harmful long-term consequences for effective governance.

Other ideologically impelled acts of sabotage include negligible oversight of private sector government contracts, which has produced far more of the waste, fraud, and abuse that conservatives habitually deride than preceding administrations; legislated time bombs set to go off in future years in the Medicare drug bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, and various tax cutting laws, all of which will put future Congresses in political traps that will compound the difficultly of governing sensibly; and abundant secrecy, which will lead to the discovery down the road of untold abuses that will only further undermine political support for government.

The new Democratic Congress needs to shine a bright light on the planning and execution of all these insidious tactics, to help the public connect the dots linking the right's ideology to the government's myriad failures since 2001. Preventing future attacks and beginning the reconstruction process will require widespread recognition that the enemy isn't just a band of renegade incompetents -- it's movement conservatism itself.

Greg Anrig Jr., vice president of programs at The Century Foundation, is author of the forthcoming book The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing (John Wiley & Sons).

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