Thursday, April 27, 2006


A Washington Shuffle

A short reflection on why busting pork in terms of earmarks -- member items, pork barrel spending, supplemental appropriations, etc. – is only one battle in a bigger war. (The occasion of this reflection is the Senate Proposal to reorganize the FEMA Portion of Homeland Security.)

When you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Better yet, when you’re a hammer aching to look like you’re really important, anything looks like it needs you pounding away at it.

Best of all, when you’re head’s made of iron, pounding away at nails is probably all you’re good for. Except, it’s long past “hammer time.”

Okay, enough with the hammer metaphor, but that was fun.

It’s humorous, after all, to think of most of our Senators as a kind of select group of Tim Allens, playing at TV handymen and women on some kind of Governmental Tool Time program. It’s also sad and pathetic that this is indeed what our elected officials amount, to at a time of grave threats and fiscal dangers. And their solutions? More bureaucracy, bigger bureaucracy, new bureaucracy.

Anything to make it look like “They Are Doing Something About It.”

My Dad retired as a Civil Service employee after many years as an Actuary for two Insurance companies. He spent his last 15 years or so as the senior non-appointed employee for a State Insurance regulatory organization.

Dad used to self-effacingly call government service “the last refuge of the mediocre.” Witnessing the many years that he toiled to keep the insurance companies operating in New York honest, and the many occasions that he confronted dishonesty and corruption in various government or public employee union settings, I know that his observation was less true than some might think. Even corrupt government employees rarely exhibit mediocrity in their criminal pursuits. Surely those who attempt to do the right thing, even less so.

I have spent the better part of my Civilian career consulting within government agencies, and have seen both sides of the issue, and all kinds of civil servants. They are no more, and no less, than any other type of employee.

Like military men and women, Civil Servants do not make the decisions that create their missions, direct, or otherwise regulate their efforts. Politicians do that.

It may be a truism, that there is no area or endeavor that Government involvement cannot make more confused, ineffective, or inefficient. Many of us grow infuriated with Government bloat and ineffectiveness. But.

My Dad used to be a Conservative, many years ago now. I won’t discuss that further, it’s painful and distressing, but nevertheless, he once was as Conservative as I, and I remember the things he often said. He is perhaps my Mentor most of all, in this.

One thing he also said, reflects on the rapacious tendency of Government to want to consume every issue and “crises,” at least those events so characterized that they will inevitably rise to a certain threshold level of awareness. In responding to these crises, the Politician finds a ready made soapbox, a venue for issue- (and thus self-) promotion, and media attention. (Which is, after all, the ready grease of political opportunity.)

Dad firmly believed that, if private industry or business or other appropriate institutions or organizations would fail to police or regulate themselves, no doubt government eventually would, but less effectively. He often expressed it something like this: there is no better way to guarantee unwanted (and otherwise unnecessary) government intervention, than failing to deal with a problem at the appropriate level.

He invoked this observation, axiom-like, whenever current events provided ample demonstration of the truth of his observation. This happened often, as it happens. The Stock Market. Environmental Protection. Baseball.

I don’t know that I have previously noted how commonly this occurs within Government. Citizens in local communities first, but then small and mid-size “g” Government at local and state levels fail in their responsibilities. Who steps in? Uncle Sam, of course.

Visit for a moment today’s press report:

"The first obligation of government is to protect our people," said Sen. Susan Collins (news, bio, voting record), R-Maine, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs investigation. "In Katrina, we failed at all levels of government to meet that fundamental obligation."

She added: "We must learn from the lessons of Katrina so that next time disaster strikes, whether it's a storm that was imminent and predicted for a long time, or a terror attack that takes us by surprise, government responds far more effectively."

Presumably, since today’s report of Senate fulminations makes no mention of any change that affects preparedness for terror attacks, we might conclude that Sen. Collins thinks that half of her verbal construct is being dealt with sufficiently by the Bush Administration and its myriad Executive Branch apparatchiks. (Better guess, that’s coming somewhere down the Campaign Trail.)

So how does the Senate ensure that Government best meets this “first obligation?”

Why, rename and reshuffle Agencies, of course:

WASHINGTON - Hurricane Katrina turned FEMA into a "symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy" so far beyond repair that it should be scrapped, senators said Thursday. They called for creation of a new disaster relief agency as the next storm season looms on the horizon.

This will make everything better!

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (news, bio, voting record), D-N.J., said FEMA needs to be stripped out of the larger department and restored to an independent Cabinet-level agency. "That's how it was done in the past and it worked as we hoped," said Lautenberg, a member of the Senate panel.

This is an odd rewriting of history, even for a crass partisan opportunist. By all accounts, the FEMA response to Katrina was arguably better, faster, more resourced, than any emergency response in FEMA’s history. Even before that rather non-sensical, Democratic Party-prompted subordination of FEMA within the cumbersome Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

A DHS spokesman responded to the Senate announcement with a tart rejoinder:

"It's time to stop playing around with the organizational charts and to start focusing on government, at all levels, that are preparing for this storm season," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said.

Oddly enough, that was just as true on September 12, 2001, before politics created DHS as a way of letting Politicians then (mostly Democrats, but joined obviously by Republicans) of using Bureaucratic turf building to show how much Good They Could Do.

Have at the After Action Reports. Identify areas for improvement. Increase funding, reset priorities, all well and good.

But how many different ways do we need to rearrange the deckchairs before we get at what the real problems are?

Back in the Active Duty Army, I remember the ways in which each new Commander needed to “Reorganize” unit operations at our Intelligence site, each reorganization forming the basis for the End of Tour Legion of Merit. Usually the Big Man in charge found the easy way to accomplish this, alternating between Centralization and Decentralization, with each new Commander finding the Last Commander’s Design as the Source for all our Problems. Hence, the imperative to reorganize.

Do they teach this technique at one of the War Colleges? Did GE teach this technique at Croton-on-Hudson? I don’t think anyone puts this in writing. My guess is this is learned through Informal Mentoring, by those who observe, like my Dad, that there’s a predictable pattern to the Ways of the Organization, which are after all, all Political at their core.

And so the Senate ruminates, fulminates, gesticulates, regurgitates.

We can only hope that someone, at some point, decides to make better use of obligation to do the People’s Work.

Links: Basil's Blog, A Blog for All, Right Wing Nation, Jo's Cafe, The QandO Blog, Mudville Gazette

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