The Return of Newtonian Governance

In an old Three Stooges short film, Moe, Larry, and Curly are pest exterminators who unleash, on the sly, an assortment of moths, ants, and mice in an elegant mansion. They then proceed to demonstrate their usefulness to the lady of the house, in the midst of her high-society party, by attacking the vermin with recklessly wielded hammers, bug spray, and cats. They destroy a piano. They injure guests. They throw desserts. They make the hostess cry.

The arrival of Newt Gingrich's new book, in which he promises to explain how to "create a government that is small, efficient, and responsive," is akin to the Stooges returning to the same home and again offering up their expertise in pest extermination. The man who spearheaded movement conservatism's ongoing era of governance, which continues to produce one debacle after another, is back pushing the same failed mind-set and ideas that he promises will lead to, as his book is titled, Real Change. But it has been the hostile attitude toward government espoused by Gingrich and the conservatives in power during the Bush years that has produced the conditions that the public now craves to escape from. Nonetheless, there it is on the best-seller list, along with Jonah Goldberg's comparably fanciful Liberal Fascism.

The central theme of Gingrich's book, just as it has been throughout his political career, is that "bureaucracy" predisposes government to fail, in contrast to an inherently more effective and efficient private sector. He writes, "In the world that works, if 70 to 90 percent of customers want something, they get it. In the world that fails, if 70 to 90 percent of the people want something, the bureaucracy continues to do what's best for itself, not for the majority of the American people." As an example, he ludicrously contrasts the ability of Federal Express and UPS to keep track of millions of packages with the government's inability to keep track of millions of illegal immigrants. The key to reform, says Gingrich, is to make government more entrepreneurial. "Moving from the world that fails to the world that works requires … moving from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from recipients to customers, and from no choice to real choice."

Perhaps the only virtue of Gingrich's affixing such glibness to the printed page is that it enables readers to draw circles around the contradictions and non sequiturs that permeate his thinking. So, for example, early on he emphasizes the importance of adhering to a relentlessly positive message and warning against the counterproductivity of "scorched-earth negativity" and "shrillness." But as the book proceeds, he rarely misses a chance to take shots at "the labor unions," "the trial lawyers," "the liberal lifestyle groups," "the Hollywood Left," "the antiwar Left," "the anti-religious Left," "arrogant unionized bureaucrats," and other groups he is unconcerned about offending.

More centrally, Gingrich's dichotomy between villainous government bureaucrats and virtuous "entrepreneurs" forces him to ignore or brush aside fairly obvious examples that undercut that hyper-simplistic worldview while leaving his arguments about governing lost in fantasy land. Take the subject of government contracting. Gingrich never adequately wrestles with any of the multitude of examples in which the Bush administration, equally hostile to government bureaucracy and civil servants, outsourced work to private, supposedly more entrepreneurial contractors -- with disastrous results. Under Bush, contract spending nearly doubled while the number of employees working for companies receiving government funding increased nearly 50 percent between 2002 and 2005, from $5.17 million to $7.64 million.

But a combination of lax oversight, ineffective contracting practices, a depleted government acquisition workforce, and political connections to favored contributors produced unprecedented levels of the waste, fraud, and abuse that Newt habitually blames on bureaucrats. According to the Department of Justice, in 2006 the federal government collected a record $3.1 billion in settlements and judgments in cases involving allegations of contractor fraud against the government. The stories of private-sector mismanagement of taxpayer billions have been relentless: Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman's inept efforts to modernize the Coast Guard fleet; the egregious wastefulness of defense and homeland-security contracts awarded to companies like Bechtel, Fluor, Parsons, and the Halliburton subsidiary KBR; and the State Department's squandered awards to Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and DynCorp in their slipshod work protecting diplomats oversees and training foreign police officers.

Gingrich does briefly acknowledge Lockheed Martin's assorted failures in connection to the Mars exploration program. Part of his diagnosis of the problem is even somewhat legitimate: "The cost of being a major federal contractor is now so great and the contract timeline is so long that no entrepreneurial, market-oriented company can compete. The result has been a downward spiral: fewer and fewer companies, which become bigger and more bureaucratic, establish a quasi-monopoly on federal space contracting." But his solution -- remove NASA from the space transportation business and create prizes to be awarded to the first teams to build a permanent lunar base and get to Mars and back -- is highly dubious in that case and not remotely practical as an answer to the dysfunctional contracting relationships that have proliferated throughout the government under Bush's conservative administration. Offering a prize to successfully refurbish the Coast Guard fleet won't get the job done either.

The fundamental problem with Gingrich's simple-minded hostility toward "the bureaucracy" is that it essentially assumes that anyone working for the government will inherently act in opposition to the public interest. The caliber of individuals recruited to work in the civil service doesn't matter because those people, upon being hired, become part of the bureaucracy and therefore serve no useful purpose. But that's exactly the belief system that has produced the serious erosion in both the competence and quantity of government officials responsible for overseeing contracts. Making sure that private companies receiving public funds are putting the money to good use requires substantial expertise, energy, ability, and time to do the job right. The denigration and downsizing of civil servants who do that essential work, simply because they are "bureaucrats," has directly weakened the government's capacity to make sure that private contractors aren't squandering the money. The results have been calamitous, but Gingrich chooses to ignore them and stick to his script.

Similarly, Gingrich writes that FEMA's "bureaucratic attitude and arrogance became a stunning indictment of the federal government in the weeks after Katrina." But as has been well documented, FEMA transformed during the 1990s into what both Democrats and Republicans hailed as a "model agency" under the leadership of James Lee Witt, who largely relied on harnessing the abilities and experience of the agency's career work force. FEMA was very much a government bureaucracy, but one that became far more effective at fulfilling its emergency response mission due to nothing more revolutionary than smart management. The agency's deterioriation under Bush, Joseph Allbaugh, and Michael Brown occurred primarily because they distrusted its career employees and followed the conservative game plan of politicizing, privatizing, devolving, and cutting – causing the professionals to leave in droves. The "bureaucrats" who knew what they were doing were pushed aside and out the door, exactly as Gingrich insists they should continue to be.

Many of the other ideas for "change" that Gingrich puts forward also closely overlap with the Bush agenda: tax cuts for the rich, weakening regulations, Social Security privatization, health savings accounts, school vouchers, reforming a "bigoted, anti-religious" judiciary, viewing Iraq as "one campaign in a larger war against the irreconcilable wing of Islam," etc. So there's little reason to believe that his remedies would lead to anything other than a continuation of the world that fails.

There is another use for the book, however. On the cover is a nice photo of the former speaker of the House. It would make an excellent pie-tossing target.