by Robert Herold & r & FEMA's failure in New Orleans illustrates the institutional dysfunctionality that the Bush administration has fostered through its paranoid demands that, when it comes to government service, personal loyalty and ideological purity trump competence, experience and even honesty. We have seen the consequences of their political psychosis in Iraq, in environmental protection, in economic policy development, in energy policy and now in New Orleans.
About FEMA, some history might help: The key to the creation of FEMA back in 1979 was not natural-disaster mitigation but rather the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (Civil Defense), housed at the time in the Department of Defense. DCPA was the key because that agency had the biggest chunk of money, even though no one really was taking civil defense all that seriously. FEMA, once it absorbed DCPA, had a pipeline to national security dollars (always easier to get) and could channel some of those dollars to those governors who were most concerned about natural disasters. But aside from serving as a conduit to surreptitiously channeling funds, what was FEMA officially to do? No clear mission or any kind of mandate was ever worked out, which meant that you had yet another backwater agency -- the perfect place to pay off loyalists. FEMA became hack heaven. Our latest incompetent loyalist, Mike Brown, is a man of clearly undistinguished (and perhaps fabricated) credentials, most recently having completed an unsuccessful tour with the International Arabian Horse Association.
Of course, not all people think Brown is incompetent. Just the other day, the man who hired him for the job, our "CEO president," said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Brown owes his job to another unqualified loyalist, Joe Allbaugh, who had served as Bush's chief of staff in Texas and ran Dubya's 2000 campaign. At FEMA, first under Allbaugh, then under Brown, we have seen four years of budget-cutting and privatizing at the expense of institutional development, integrity and morale.
One partisan hack followed by another. But they are two in a long tradition of partisan hacks, it needs to be pointed out. You may recall Eastern Washington's very own Grant Peterson. Here's the tale: During the '70s, Peterson owned a small TV store in Cheney, "Town and Country TV." Stop by Grant's store to buy a TV and you could count on getting an earful of right-wing diatribe. He became involved with Reagan's first run in 1976, then, as I recall, directed the Gipper's Washington campaign in 1980. Peterson's reward? "Hey, Grant, how would you like to be Associate Director at FEMA?"
And this for a guy who had never done anything other than sell TVs and rant! In fact, he was still employed at FEMA through at least the spring of 1991 -- not bad for a guy who wanted to abolish all government.
The appointments of hacks such as Mike Brown and Grant Peterson didn't happen by accident. The "movement conservatives" who won the presidency for Reagan declared war on the professional civil service, which had been invented around the turn of the century by, ironically enough, moderate Republicans known as "Progressives."
And why declare war on qualified civil servants? It's because Reaganites (followed by the Gingrich crowd and now the Bushes) didn't trust government to do anything much good. Reagan, you will recall, said of government, it "is the problem, not the solution." But the bureaucracy, the permanent government, as it is known, had long been suspected by Republicans to be the true Democratic Party. And it is true that most people go into government service because they believe government to be often essential to creating solutions -- not problems, as Reagan judged. To diminish government's presence, now for a quarter of a century, the GOP right-wing has pursued two strategies: purging and marginalization.
Except for firing a cabinet secretary here or a general there, purging has been tough to pull off. Consider Reagan's controversial Secretary of Interior, the Pentecostal James Watt. He took dead aim at Interior's General Counsel's office. Having worked for the agency earlier in his career, Watt knew that those government lawyers could make or break a political agenda. His solution? Fire the lot of them. His ploy didn't work. As political backlash mounted, Reagan (no doubt urged on by Nancy) fired Watt.
But actually, if we can get beyond Watt's stupefying ways of incorporating his fundamentalist religion into the affairs of state (such as literally speaking in tongues in his office), we realize that he was on to something. The truth is, he and his fellow Republicans were right about the permanent government. They understood that when Progressives made their reforms, government by expertise had replaced government by political accountability. Being good at your job was elevated above being loyal to your boss.
Denied the option of mass purging, long-frustrated Republicans have sought to ensure accountability by circumventing analysis and science, the modus operandi of the permanent government. They have sought to accomplish this most often indirectly, through the bureaucratic art of marginalization. After all, you can diminish agency influence simply by appointing to leadership positions loyalist hacks who will do whatever you tell them, whether it runs counter to the mission of the agency or not.
Ah, the irony of it all. The Republicans have borrowed a page from the 19th-century political machines, those same machines that their Progressive Republican political ancestors like Teddy Roosevelt fought a century ago.
What's old is new again. Competence? Who cares? We want loyalty. What difference does it make that your disaster guy is a compliant hack? Just so long as he's our hack.
Given those criteria for success, you see, "Brownie" really was doing a heck of a job for his boss.