Monday, July 23, 2007

A government of children, not of men

By Vivek Krishnamurthy

I had the good fortune to get out of the law offices this afternoon and attend a hearing on Capitol Hill, as a fly on the wall on behalf of a client. Like most Americans, I hold Congress (and the executive, and the judiciary) in pretty low esteem, but I've got to say that I was quite impressed with the talent on display at this hearing. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that only Democrats attended.

The substance of the hearing is not, however, the substance of this post. What had me surprised at today's hearing was the composition of the audience. I was expecting rows of greying, rotund Washington hacks (not that dissimilar to your faithful correspondent) sitting in on the hearing for their K Street lobbying firms; instead, the galleries were filled with a racially-diverse, gender-balanced picture of the prime of nerdy American youth. Fully one-half of the audience at today's hearing must have been under the age of 22. Indeed, some of the young men were still too young to shave. Eavesdropping and casual observation of security passes showed the majority of them to be summer interns.

While it must be a heady experience to spend a summer working in the office of a Congress-person before one completes even their undergraduate education, that the hearing was packed with hordes of youngens points to a larger problem with the American system of government. By and large, it is not a government of laws, men, or women, but a government of children. Unlike the parliamentary democracies, where the bulk of the civil service stays in place through a change in government, the Executive Branch in the United States engages in a purge on a scale that would make a apparatchik blush when someone new comes into the White House. Some estimates pin the number of direct presidential appointees who change over during a transition at over 3,000 -- many of whom are young campaign volunteers who have no government experience, or much in the way of relevant life experience either. The most egregious examples in this administration of babes at the wheel come from the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, where a 28-year old with connections to the Heritage Foundation was tasked with running that country's economy into the ground, and a 23-year-old aid to Rick Santorum landed a similarly plum post.

To be sure, there are virtues to shaking up the system and injecting new blood once in a while, but such wholesale transitions systematically destroy the Executive Branch's institutional memory at the higher levels of authority. No wonder then that Condi Rice and her youthful underlings failed to apprehend the severity of the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks.

The challenge, as with everything, is in achieving the right balance, in this case between youth and experience. The problem, however, is that Washington is a city to which the concept of balance is foreign -- except of course for the razor-thin balance of power in the Senate right now.

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