Friday, November 4, 2011

Bush Administration Follies (or not?)

My favorite paragraph from the last week:
From the outset, the choice of VaxGen proved controversial. The company had never produced a drug before, it had been delisted from Nasdaq a few months earlier for failure to file timely financial statements and it was embroiled in an ethical dispute in Thailand over human testing of another drug. But VaxGen did have certain advantages, not least that it had been working on a new anthrax vaccine for two years already, financed by $100 million from Fauci’s N.I.A.I.D.
Yeah, I guess that would make it controversial.

That's from the NYT Magazine front-page scare story about biological weapons last Sunday, and it reminds me of a continuing non-story, or sort-of-story, that I've remarked on before: the question of just how poorly the government operated in the Bush years. As I've said, I expected quite a few stories to emerge of massive incompetence in multiple agencies. Why? BecauseI suspected that Bush didn't do very much management of the bureaucracy, and Congressional oversight basically collapsed.

So what do we have? The big ones: the occupation of Iraq, detention/torture, and generally the management of Gitmo. I think I'd count the SEC -- not the failure of the law to keep up with Wall Street, but the failure of the agency to carry out what it was charged to do. That agency that was supposed to regulate drilling in the Gulf...the Minerals Management Service, right?

What else? I'm not interested here in poor policy choices; I'm interested in dysfunctional agencies who carried out policy poorly, whatever that policy might have been.

I think, overall, that my expectation that there would be lots of awful-sounding stuff uncovered has turned out to be wrong. Most notably, I'm not aware of cases of fraud and corruption, such as those that marked the Reagan Administration, which was pretty much the basis for my expectations.

But overall, I'm just not sure (and I'm not at all sure that the paragraph I started this post with is actually an example of agency dysfunction; it might be, but mostly it just reminded me of the topic). What do people think? I'm not really aware of any systematic look at this sort of question (I'd be interested to hear what Matthew Dickinson thinks about it). My general sense is that the early Bush administration had above-average personnel in the White House staff, but a far below average president and a weirdly destructive wild card in the VP slot...I'd compare it with a Clinton administration that started out with unusually below-average WH personnel but improved dramatically over time, or an Obama administration that started with a pretty good WH staff but a president who has at times seemed (from what we know so far, which could be very incomplete) to pay a lot more attention to the legislative than the administrative side of the job. I'm wondering, however, whether my impression is correct.


  1. The good people of New Orleans and its diaspora would add FEMA to that list of agency failure.

  2. Your expectation seems flawed. You are imparting too much influence to the White House over the internal operation of agencies and their programs. What about the millions of career civil servants who want to make their agencies function well? Dan Carpenter's work, among others, emphasizes the role of professional reputations in motivating agency personnel. What they care about is being seen as someone who can be trusted and respected by their peers. Just because the president and his administration aren't interested in management doesn't mean the civil servants aren't.

  3. Perhaps the journalists have too many ongoing crises to concern themselves with digging up "history."

    I always liked the fact that the Minerals Management folks not only failed to regulate, they didn't even bother to collect the royalties owed for the use of federal lands. The Bush folks, I would guess, had a predetermined assumption that government neither could nor should do anything important, so it was acceptable to appoint lobbyists as regulators and to put FEMA under a friend-of-a-friend who couldn't keep a job in the private sector. There's been tendency away from regulation since the Reagan era--muted but still there under Clinton--not the outright abolition of regulatory agencies, which would draw too much attention to itself, but a long-term defunding, inappropriate staffing, and quiet instructions that regulation shouldn't be pushed too forcefully. The result has been oil rigs that explode; coal mines that collapse; successive food recalls, each breaking the record set by the last one; and a global financial crisis.

  4. Keith Smith, your comment reminded me of a friend who worked as a global warming specialist at NOAA. She resigned in outrage during the early Bush years.

  5. There are a LOT of questions I'd still like to see answered about the Bush years. Sometimes I think it's just lefty paranoia, but no, there really was a male escort invited to participate in White House press conferences under the guise of some small-time right-wing Web site. (He also visited the White House on numerous occasions when there weren't any press events going on.) Oh, and he was also using a fake name.

    Don't people ever wonder how he got there? It doesn't make a great deal of difference now, and probably didn't even make much difference then, but I bet there's a great story behind it.

  6. What about DOJ? Surely the hyper-politicization of hiring and firing policies must have led to at least intermittently incompetent execution? I feel like TPM has written a hundred things about this but I can't remember how many were "uh oh, we didn't know we were supposed to do that!"s versus "don't care"s.

  7. The FDA is a good example of Bush-era agency failure - particularly the Vioxx case. The drug was marketed from April 199 - fall 2004. Basically the agency was underpowered, underfinanced, and gutless - which led to the Vioxx disaster. In exchange for User fees Congress mandated the agency to act on new drug applications in 6 months. The agency got rolled and a little studied, dubious drug was approved, then marketed aggressively - to be followed by an epidemic of heart attacks in elderly, arthritic patients.

    The Institute of Medicine tells the story in its report The Future of Drug Safety.

  8. Keith,

    That's a fair point to be sure, and one I should have stressed more. expectations (if not the original post) did take that into account. But I'm also aware of research on the Reagan era about discouraged and demoralized civil servants who either quit, as in Scott's story, or stopped trying.

    I obviously should have included FEMA in the the original post.

    The problem of course is that any of these specific examples could be the consequence of lots of things; I don't know how you pin it down to Bush/Congress. But perhaps there's some literature on this that I don't know.

  9. The DOJ certainly operated poorly, as the classicist says, although because in that case it was deliberate politicization, it was, in a sense, a feature and not a bug. As to the consequences, I can think of the Don Siegelman prosecution, but we really don't know how many criminals are running around out there today because the DOJ was busy doing Karl Rove's dirty work instead of solving crimes.

    To the original list, I would add 9/11. It happened early, and the failures of CIA and FBI coordination weren't of Bush's making. But poor / politicized staffing of the National Security Council, starting with Condi Rice, Bush's football-watching buddy, as National Security Advisor, meant that people like Richard Clarke weren't listened to and that information available from executive departments wasn't acted on promptly.

  10. GAO issued a report on the operations of the Minerals Management Service's Alaska office in May of last year.

  11. This is an interesting thread, since (for me) it sort of helps answer a lingering question: how in the world did an incompetent dope like Bush 43 ever win the invisible primary in 2000?

    Start with Jonathan's plausible assertion that Bush started with a pretty good WH (and aside from fellow-traveller-dopes like "heckuvajobBrownie", probably pretty good career civil servants). The explanation may be roughly the reverse one for why Clinton's original WH staff was so poor:

    Because GWB brought such a powerful brand name, it was easy enough for self-motivated career civil servants to believe that enough of their peers would also be attracted by the coattails of that brand, such that the organizations would function reasonably well. Not, obviously, at the higher, GWBs-idiot-friends (like the aformentioned Mike Brown) level. But probably at the operational level where the masses that Keith Smith was referring to operate.

    So if its 2000, 8 years after Fukuyama's The End of History and at the tail end of the Seinfeld decade, perhaps the kingmakers in the Republican party understandably thought the most important thing for an executive was keeping the place running along smoothly.

    Knowing the problems that an outsider like Clinton had in achieving that goal, initially, perhaps the power-brokers figured that Bush's brand trumped the problem that everything else about him sucked something fierce.

    Which, coming full circle, may explain why there hasn't been much scandal - as awful as Bush was, having good people at an operational level may have covered off against some of the anticipated scandals.

  12. A lot of public information disappeared during the Bush years. My first-hand experience was reports on the impacts of logging on steep watersheds that I used for investigative reporting on a water-district that was doing a lot of logging in a steep watershed that was also a water supply. That, and a host of other information that the public paid for, information had been available through various government websites, vanished. Over the course of Bush's presidency, those websites were shut down or payment demanded for paper reports or it was replaced with other information that better reflected ideology.

    One of the most useful functions of government is providing citizens with the data we need to make sound policy. From census data to health data to environmental data to weather data, this flow of information to the public is vital.

    And Bush particular brand of incompetence impeded that flow. In the process, I would guess it also impeded the stories you're searching for on competence; kicked a leg out from under reporter's ability to gather that information.

  13. One of the most useful functions of government is providing citizens with the data we need to make sound policy.


    And Bush particular brand of incompetence impeded that flow. In the process, I would guess it also impeded the stories you're searching for on competence; kicked a leg out from under reporter's ability to gather that information.

    I agree with you that data flow from government to citizens is critical, and as we know, this data flow is set up to flow from administration to the Congress, if you notice, not "reporters".

    I'm chuckling at the specter of you lefties suddenly going after your evil enemy Bushitler, just as the Obamabots have refused to comply with a Congressional subpoena for documents relating to Solyndra.

    Maybe you should throw Enron into your rants, just to complete the farce. ;-)

  14. Anon, public information is public. There's nothing special about reporters being able to access it except that they are more familiar with the process as part of their work. I've encouraged dozens of private individuals to seek out public data they needed, taught them to file FOIA requests, and always, with the lecture that they don't need press credentials to request it. Ironically, I've also had to school government employees on that fact; they felt entitled to ask 'why' you need data, and to censure it if you weren't a reporter.

    And that flow, focused to Congress, is law; the lack of flow to citizens, got much better under Clinton, and then worse under Bush.

    I didn't use inflamed terms and Nazi references, it's really too bad you think it necessary. Shame on you.

  15. Oh, I apologize, and certainly my post wasn't directed at you, zic. It was the general tone of the previous posts, all of them, that set off the contrast, and brought on my post.

    But again, the "data flow" gets terminated quite handily when administrations ignore subpoenas, as have the Obamabots. That is the measure. It ain't about opinions. It's about real data flow. I'm just commenting at the juxtaposition of an administration ignoring the Constitutional required data flow, such being ignored by the leftists in this discussion, even as they dig to attack their evil enemy Bush, as ever.

    I just find it amusing, is all. ;-)

  16. I remember that when Ken Salazar was chosen as the new Secretary of the Interior, Bradford Plumer had a pretty awesome article about how badly the Department fared under the Bush administration.


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