In Praise of Red Tape

In Praise of Red Tape

When lawmakers and the media failed to hold the Bush Administration to account, it was left to bureaucrats to defend the integrity of government.


Is there any figure in American political discourse more reviled than the bureaucrat? Say the word and a potent caricature leaps to mind: the petty and shiftless paper pusher who wields his small amount of power with malice and caprice. Whatever the issue–from school reform to overhauling the nation’s intelligence apparatus–the bureaucrat is on the wrong side of it.

It’s slander with a long pedigree–Cicero called the bureaucrat “the most despicable” of men, “petty, dull, almost witless…a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog”–but in the last forty years, conservatives have converted this casual contempt into an ideological fixture. Since as far back as the Goldwater campaign, the American right has generally found that “the government” is too abstract an entity for most people to actively loathe. It’s far more effective to demonize the people who execute its daily functions. Bureaucrats are to conservatives what the bourgeoisie was to Marx: an oppressive class of joyless knaves. Milton Friedman quipped that “hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned”; Ronald Reagan said in 1966 that “the best minds are not in government” because if any were, “business would hire them away”; and George Wallace expressed his desire to “take those bearded bureaucrats” in Washington who were in the process of desegregating the South, “and throw them in the Potomac.”

But a funny thing has happened over the past six years. At a time when the press failed to check a reactionary Administration, when the opposition party all too often chose timidity, it was the lowly and anonymous bureaucrats, clad in rumpled suits, ID badges dangling from their necks, who, in their own quiet, behind-the-scenes way, took to the ramparts to defend the integrity of the American system of government.

It was the midlevel intelligence professionals in the CIA whose expertise led them to argue that Iraq had no means of acquiring nuclear material; it was the planners and country experts at the State Department who prepared a 1,200-page document about postwar Iraq outlining in depressing detail the many challenges and brutalizing exigencies our occupying forces now face. It was professional scientists in the bowels of the Environmental Protection Agency who pushed their reports warning of the effects of climate change, only to have them censored and purged. It was concerned and conscientious spooks and cryptographers at the National Security Agency who contacted reporters to raise alarms about the warrantless wiretapping of Americans. It was a midlevel career bureaucrat at the Department of Education named Jon Oberg who spent his own time–nights and weekends–studying the student loan program and discovered that taxpayers were being ripped off by private lenders to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite warnings from his (appointed) superiors, he published his results in an internal memo sent to the entire department. He retired shortly thereafter.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the virtue of bureaucracy came during the recent revelations of James Comey’s late-night confrontation with the President’s henchmen in the hospital room of the drugged and groggy Attorney General John Ashcroft. True, Comey and Ashcroft were both appointed apparatchiks, but ones who acted, for this moment, like bureaucrats, responsible to the integrity of their office and the rules and processes by which those offices were governed. And they were no doubt pressured by the fact that many of the career civil servants in the Justice Department had reportedly vowed to quit if the wiretapping program in question was approved.

But one could easily imagine the Comey story slightly altered to bolster the Goldwater-Reagan-Bush II worldview. Imagine that Jack Bauer, hero of television’s 24, has a suspect ready to confess to the location of a ticking bomb but runs up against a maddening bureaucratic regulation that prevents him from employing the necessary interrogation techniques until the obstructionist, stickler-for-the-rules Attorney General signs off. But the pathetic AG has fallen ill, and is in the hospital, drugged, which means Bauer has to waste precious time while he waits for some of the President’s associates to visit the stricken AG and get the needed signature. When they arrive, however, they realize they’re too late: they’ve been beaten to the punch by a quisling bureaucrat who’s persuaded the Attorney General not to sign off, because Bauer’s tactics would be “illegal.”

After all, what could be a more absurd example of mindless red tape than a midnight drive to a hospital to obtain…a supervisor’s signature? But the moral of the Comey story specifically, and of the failures of the Bush Administration more broadly, is the sublime value of bureaucracy. Not only is governance of any kind impossible without it; so too are the checks and balances of a constitutional republic. Red tape is what binds those in power to the mast of the law, what stands in the way of government by whim. That’s why an Administration hostile to any checks and balances has sought to reconstitute the federal civil service as just another lever in its machine.

As hard as Rove & Co. have tried to remake the bureaucracy in their own partisan image, though, their changes have been by and large cosmetic. Like teachers at a high school who watch classes of students come and go, the bureaucrats remain while the administrations change. When the current occupant of the White House leaves, his appointed hacks will leave with him, and whether or not someone actually committed to governing takes his place, the bureaucrats will be there, as always, to do their duty.

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