Monday, March 13, 2017

Legislative Encystments

     Unfortunately, I have a depressing subject for this morning’s screed. I know, I know: It’s Monday. Most Gentle Readers don’t need any more reasons to be glum. But then, you went to bed yesterday evening knowing Monday was coming, so why didn’t you brace for it?

     Anyway, quite a lot has been written in recent weeks about the war between the fledgling Trump Administration and the Deep State. Conceptions of the Deep State tend to converge on the great importance of the millions of persons in the Executive branch “alphabet agencies.” The tenacity of their hold on their positions is unequaled by any other category of worker, anywhere in the world, owing to Civil Service laws so indulgent that a bureaucrat who’d raped a minor in Times Square at high noon, with reporters from the Times as witnesses, could retain his job, salary, and all other perquisites during three years of hearings before being discharged. Needless to say, the Left has made the colonization and conquest of the bureaucracies a high priority.

     Outrageous. Intolerable. Terrifying and worse. But there’s more to the Deep State than that.


     The array of unelected federal functionaries has more components than one, of course:

     [T]he legislator gives general orders to his chief of staff, who then sets the others to work composing a bill to that end. Parkinson’s Law kicks in at this point. A staff of twenty or thirty is inherently incapable of writing a short bill. Among other things, each staffer wants the final product to have his fingerprints on it, to prove his importance to his coworkers and to the legislator. The consequence is invariably a bill that runs to dozens if not hundreds of pages, reads as if it had been assembled from a congeries of legal treatises, obsolete encyclopedias, and phone books, and contains almost as many internal contradictions and ambiguities as there are words in it.

     Yet you might think that a federal legislator’s staff, which serves at the legislator’s pleasure and is not covered by the Civil Service laws, would be more likely to exhibit genuine loyalty toward the legislator, his convictions, and his agenda. That turns out not to be the case. Those staffers have far more in common, for both occupational and ideological reasons, with the time-servers in the bureaucracies than with their titular boss.

     Remember Robert Conquest’s Second Law of Politics: Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing. This is well supported by recorded history. Moreover, it has some important corollaries:

  • A left-wing organization will bend a substantial fraction of its efforts to corrupting other institutions;
  • Absent countervailing survival imperatives, left-wing organizations will collaborate on their common agenda items;
  • Once an organization becomes left-wing, it will remain unalterably left-wing unless destroyed root and branch.

     Now consider the circumstances of a federal legislator of conservative convictions, newly seated in Congress. Everyone else in the building has a staff of twenty or thirty; therefore he must have one too. Where is it to come from?

  • Young lawyers in the private sector;
  • Subject-matter experts from universities and think tanks;
  • Veterans of government service, largely from the bureaucracies.

     A Congressional staff position is a prestigious job; the holder won’t want to lose it. Therefore, he must serve his boss in a fashion that persuades him, albeit subtly, that the staffer in question is an important pillar of support for his work. His competitors will be his fellow staffers, who share his desire to stand out from the crowd. He will seek allies wherever he might find them...and the bureaucrats in the alphabet agencies will prove only too happy to “help.”

     Remember the outlandish size of the typical Congressional bill. Remember the incentive that drives every staffer to ensure that his fingerprints are on it. Remember that the longer the bill, the less likely is a legislator to read more than a staff-composed precis. And remember how easily words such as “discretion” and phrases such as “reasonable and proper” find their way into such bills.

     The process is automatic; once in motion, it can’t be restrained. The legislator finds himself encysted and directed by the very persons upon whom he’s relied to keep pace with his fellows in Congress. There’s no more at work than the ordinary incentives that pertain to job holders everywhere. Yet it is curiously irresistible.


     It takes a strength of will most federal legislators don’t possess to resist the above processes effectively. Even most of the strong-willed can be worn down, over time. That’s why there aren’t many long-serving legislators who both talk the conservative talk and walk the walk.

     Popular perception of these mechanisms might be dim and fuzzy, but the image has gained intensity as the United States has slid down the chute of bureaucratic totalitarianism. The “Flight 93” election of Donald Trump can be ascribed in large measure to that perception:

     Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

     Within the Washington Beltway, those who do think that “things can go on with no fundamental change needed” are thick on the ground. Their dominance of the thinking and proposals that reach the floor of Congress are the broadsword in the hand of the Deep State. They cannot be thwarted by any measure short of the wholesale destruction of the bureaucracies and the Congressional staff system.

     Let the late, great Cyril Northcote Parkinson have the last word:

     [This stage] presents us with no opportunity to do anything. The institution is for all practical purposes dead. It can be founded afresh but only with a change of name, a change of site, and an entirely different staff. The temptation, for the economically minded, is to transfer some portion of the original staff to the new institution—in the name, for example, of continuity. Such a transfusion would certainly be fatal, and continuity is the very thing to avoid. No portion of the old and diseased foundation can be regarded as free from infection. No staff, no equipment, no tradition must be removed from the original site. Strict quarantine should be followed by complete disinfection. Infected personnel should be dispatched with a warm testimonial to such rival institutions as are regarded with particular hostility. All equipment and files should be destroyed without hesitation. As for the buildings, the best plan is to insure them heavily and then set them alight. Only when the site is a blackened ruin can we feel certain that the germs of the disease are dead.

     You might think he was kidding. I don’t.

3 comments:

Jack Imel said...

Well, he might have been kidding, but that don't mean it ain't true. If an infected snowflake in Brazil flutters left, does the wind change flowing down Pennsylvania Ave.?

Nice work, Francis... you haven't lost yer touche.

Anonymous said...

The British did a TV documentary series about this problem, called "Yes, Minister".

Joseph P. Martino said...

I was once scheduled to give testimony before a Congressional committee. It happened to be the day after election day, an election in which many incumbents had been defeated. The Capitol was a madhouse, with Congressional staff workers, whose Member had been defeated, running around looking for a new job with one of the newly elected Representatives. I could only laugh, but it was a bitter laugh. Those out-of-work staffers would soon be employed by the newly-elected Members, and would be back at work putting their own spin on any bills. They were the permanent government, alias the Deep State.