Death by Bureaucracy
Spring 2009 - Number 16

Death by Bureaucracy

Shawn Macomber

Bill Gertz, The Failure Factory: How Unelected Bureaucrats, Liberal Democrats, and Big Government Republicans Are Undermining America’s Security and Leading Us to War (New York: Crown Forum, 2008), 304 pp. $26.95.

Thomas Jefferson, seeking a way to more fully universalize the philosophical arguments contained within the New Testament, famously fashioned his own version of the book, snipping out the supernatural and miraculous bits as he strung together the corporeal-yet-profound lessons he believed were “as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill.” Jefferson understood there are instances when it is wise to leave aside narrower, contentious aspects of an argument in pursuit of a larger consensus. He likely also realized how deep attachment to orthodoxy runs—Jefferson never revealed these revised scriptures to anyone outside of his close circle of friends and family.

Few fair-minded critics would hold anyone to the Apostle of Democracy standard. Scribbling along the lines of the Declaration of Independence, after all, is something of a tough act to follow. Bill Gertz, the rightly celebrated Washington Times investigative reporter, however, may have benefited from adhering to the judiciousness of Jefferson’s Bible in crafting his latest book.

The Failure Factory promises to unveil the “vast network of unelected officials whose authority has grown wildly out of control,” as well as “their enablers in the political class.” It is a worthy pursuit. This fundamental shift in governance is a critical underreported story, and one that carries with it harrowing implications for our representative democratic republic that the average citizen has not yet even begun to fathom. Gene Healy explained the process well last year in The Cult of the Presidency: “Congress passes a statute endorsing a high-minded goal—accommodation of the handicapped, safe drinking water, protection of wildlife—and leaves it to the relevant executive branch agency to issue and enforce the regulations governing individual behavior. That process results in some 75,000 new pages added to the Federal Register every year.”

The “relevant executive branch” agencies are, of course, brimming with human beings frequently referred to as bureaucrats, who enjoy not only the thrill of proximity to power that infects nearly everyone in Washington, DC, but who have also been bequeathed an ever-increasing power to act upon whim with minimal oversight and career life spans which frequently exceed those of the politicians who installed them.

While Healy explored this tyranny-lite in an overarching macro sense, Gertz focuses on how this delegation of authority, along with a simultaneous shirking of Constitutional responsibility by the legislative branch, affects national security. And he uncovers much to be disturbed by: petty bureaucratic stonewalling retarding the fast-tracking process designed to quickly deliver mine-resistant vehicles to Iraq; appointees of past presidential administrations in the State and Defense Departments openly and aggressively working to subvert the policies of later administrations whose political philosophies they happen to oppose; decaying standards that allowed the very same Hezbollah spy to infiltrate both the CIA and FBI employing little more than a pretty smile and a conscientious playing up to establishment prejudices.

The case against such devolution of democracy, then, appears fairly simple to distill. This delegation of rule-making authority is codifying a tyranny of the majority well after the majority has dissipated, leaving it able, as John Stuart Mill warned in On Liberty, to “fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” This is why, as Gertz notes, John Bolton, serving at the pleasure of the president of the United States, was forced to hire “a lawyer from outside the department in order to force [his own employees] to implement sanctions laws” and how Foreign Service officers, shielded by odious federal employment rules, could simply refuse to serve in Iraq when called—even as American servicemen and women selflessly fought and died there.

Since both major political parties in the United States experience times of waning influence and popularity, such a system benefits neither Democrats nor Republicans. One of the main functions of the federal apparatus, indeed, as envisioned by James Madison in Federalist No. 10, should be to “break and control the violence of faction” and blunt manias of “an interested and overbearing majority,” not perpetuate them indefinitely. What passes for the democratic process today is, in other words, diametrically opposed to our founders’ vision of a free people able to throw the bums out. If ever there was a post-partisan issue, this should be it.

Unfortunately, The Failure Factory far too often leaves readers with the impression that Gertz doesn’t necessarily believe out-of-control unelected bureaucrats are the problem. Rather, his issue seems to be with the fact the leviathan is being tended by out-of-control unelected bureaucrats with the wrong political outlook. Hence, his disparaging remarks for those who don’t share his support for the Iraq war, don’t approach China with the same degree of suspicion and animosity, and so forth. Obama partisans and enablers will no doubt issue the same complaints in reverse. Around and around we go.

Which is a shame. Introducing arguments over the nature of Islam and political correctness virtually guarantees that one is preaching to the choir. And that, in turn, undermines the broad base of support necessary to rectify the situation Gertz so deplores. The issue isn’t that Gertz’s grievances are meritless or that he shouldn’t defend what he believes. It’s that in the context of the overarching problem he elucidates and presumably seeks to resolve with The Failure Factory, a significant amount of his more biting analysis has a wrong time, wrong place vibe.

The concluding chapter of recommendations nevertheless contains some very good ideas, such as removing intelligence agencies from the reform-stunting Civil Service system, a ban on the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of executive branch employees’ holding simultaneous legislative branch jobs, and clarifying the “code of conduct for former government and military officials.” Others are less persuasive, however. Gertz suggests, for example, the problem of a politicized national security apparatus and biased National Intelligence Estimates can at least be partially ameliorated by having “all National Intelligence officers… nominated by the president and confirmed by a majority of the Senate.” Right, because Senate confirmation hearings have always been a partisanship- and politicization-free zone? Gertz further urges the creation of “a central institution that can provide training for presidential appointees who could be called to government service—or perhaps two institutions, with one run by each political party.” Why? To create a career incentive and more effective breed of partisan bureaucrat than the one we’re already cursed with?

Every cause, political or otherwise, eventually faces the question of whether it wants to be a mainstream movement or a club. The Failure Factory contains a wealth of intriguing and sobering reportage, for which Gertz should be praised. This book will at times likely shock even close observers of the news and grizzled Big Government skeptics. The author nonetheless ultimately chooses, at least in tone, to write for the clubhouse. That’s a boon for future journalists seeking a continuously simmering problem to write about. Alas, it provides precious little intellectual ammunition for people who might actually like to just solve it.


Shawn Macomber is a Contributing Editor at The American Spectator magazine.