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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  • Sorry but this post is a little silly. The US does have a civil service and career bureaucrats, just like most places - it's hardly a feature of parliamentary democracy. That the current moron in chief ignores the professionals and appoints ninnies instead of competent managers is a reflection on his management and administration, not the American system in general.

    By Blogger surakmn, at 1:34 AM  

  • Of course I realize that the United States has a civil service filled with talented and dedicated men and women. In fact, I count a good many of them among my friends. My point, however, is that the practice in the United States to purge the top six or seven levels of the bureaucracy whenever a new president comes to power, and to appoint many young and otherwise inexperienced individuals into those posts, deprives executive branch policy-making of the benefit of experience and institutional memory.

    Many of the more egregious policy failures of the Bush Administration simply could not have happened (in the way that they did) under the system used in parliamentary democracies, where the executive's influence over bureaucratic staffing decisions extends only to its top-most level (the deputy minister level in Canada, and the permanent secretaries in Britain). Take the infamous decisions to throw out the Pentagon's off-the-shelf plans for fighting a war in Iraq, and the State Department's plans for governing Iraq after Saddam. In both cases, the Administration was
    able to throw out the bureaucracy's handiwork because alternative policy inputs existed. In the case of the warfighting plans, Rumsfeld could develop their ill-conceived "war on the cheap" approach precisely because his cronies occupied the top-level jobs at the Pentagon. Ditto as for the development of the post-Saddam plans by folks such as Perle and Wolfowitz, who would not have enjoyed the same influence as political flaks in a parliamentary system, as they did in the American system where they occupied influential posts within the Administration.

    To be sure, none of this is a necessary consequence of Presidential government. It is conceivable that the U.S. executive branch could be filled with career civil servants all the way up to the Assistant Secretary level. Tradition and inertia make this unlikely, however, since U.S. administrations have filled the executive branch with patronage appointees since Marbury v. Madison. And the U.S. system of government is the weaker for it.

    By Blogger Vivek Krishnamurthy, at 9:41 PM  

  • I also agree this post is rather foolish. The reason there are so many young people that attend these meetings is because they are congressional staffers and interns that assist the senior congressional staffers and congressmen. Many legs are needed to run around and do the bureacratic work. Though, I agree that the Bush administration has put many incompentent people in several high ranking posts, it's not due to their youth that they are unqualified but because of their low mental ability and cronyism.

    You have to understand that there has always been a high number of young people at congressional meetings. It has always been this way. This is not something new that has occurred in the U.S. civil service under the Bush administration.

    Furthermore, the Marbury versus Madison case is a terrible example. How can you argue that it made the U.S. system of government weaker? It definitely did not lead to a weakened system of government, for the bureacracy and the different systems have been expanding ever since, especially in the depression era.

    I would expect to read this inaccurate article in the national review but not from a Yale law student. Or unless you are a foreigner and do not know american history.

    This is my humble opinion.

    By Blogger A citizen of the world, at 1:32 AM  

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