Hugh Heclo’s A Government of Strangers, published 40 years ago, described the very different worlds of high-level federal appointees and the civil-servant worker bees they purportedly manage. Today that sort of estrangement has spread beyond agencies to the first and second branches of government, with toxic results.
Government Disservice: Overcoming Washington Dysfunction to Improve Congressional Stewardship of the Executive Branch reports that the legislative and executive branches are badly discordant: “There is a pervasive sense that those running executive branch agencies and those serving in Congress often live in parallel universes—a condition that many believe has grown worse over time.”
This estrangement has real consequences because, as the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service note in their report, the two branches share responsibility for governing:
“Congress influences executive branch action in four primary respects: budget and appropriations; legislation to shape policies and programs; oversight of the agencies and the programs and policies they administer; and political appointee confirmation. Breakdowns or lapses in each of these areas have contributed to consequential dysfunction of the executive branch, playing out in many ways that have hindered government from carrying out domestic and foreign policies, and serving the needs of our country’s citizens.”
The report is based upon dozens of interviews with congressional and bureaucracy veterans. Intense partisanship within Congress certainly is creating problems. For example, when the House and the Senate cannot agree on appropriations, the bureaucracies suffer. It is they who bear the brunt of preparing for furloughs, disruptions in operations, delays in contracting and the like.
But equally problematic is that the two branches have gone beyond rivalry to hostility. The report explains that agencies feel Congress has turned oversight into a game of “gotcha.” A former federal executive groused: “It’s really hard for me to think of Congress as serious. There is a partner on the other side of the executive-legislative interaction that in general is focused overwhelmingly on politics.”
There also are those in the executive branch who think Congress tends to be policy ignorant. Some staff, said a former Obama administration official, are policy fluent, “[b]ut they are overwhelmingly in the minority. Congress isn’t incentivized to be experts; they’re not accountable for policy outcomes.”
Meanwhile, some in Congress feel the agencies disrespect them and forget to whom they are accountable. “Agencies don’t tend to come up to Capitol Hill and be completely transparent,” observes a former Capitol Hill aide and political appointee. “They often provide marketing materials instead of direct answers.” Agencies do themselves no favors when they forbid civil servants to testify before Congress and send only appointees, who mouth the administration’s positions.
Government Disservice suggests a number of reforms. For instance, agency leaders should remember that interpersonal relationships matter. Top bureaucrats should meet with members of their oversight committees and their staff. Legislators, for their part, should visit agencies to “interact with political and career staff and learn more about management and program challenges.” Adopting biennial budgeting, the report suggests, could stop the trauma inflicted on agencies by government shutdowns and threatened funding gaps.
Rebuilding trust between the branches is critical to reestablishing good governance. However, much of that work will have to be done by Congressional staff. Representatives and senators are outside Washington, D.C., more days than not. Today’s federal government is huge and extraordinarily complex, a $3.9 billion conglomerate of 120 agencies and dozens more affiliated commissions, boards and panels. Understanding something so large and complex requires many legislative staffers equipped with the proper time and encouragement from their bosses.
In recent debates, Congress has cut the size of its staff and those at support agencies (like the Government Accountability Office). Adjusted for inflation, the legislative branch has reduced its own funding over the past decade. Why? Because nine out of 10 members of the public mistakenly believe that Congress is overstaffed. In fact, Congress is severely understaffed. Ironically,more and more of what legislative staff are left spend their days responding to the public’s emails and tweets and burnishing their bosses’ brands. That means fewer and fewer are working on policy.
To reverse the poisonous estrangement between the branches, Congress first needs to quit being penny-wise and pound-foolish and beef up its staff and support agencies. Then, both Congressional and executive branch staff should schedule regular meetings to discuss which policies are working and which are not. In a time of high national debt and tight budgets, it is all the more critical to weed out failed programs and allocate funds to those that work. With time and effort, both branches can see that good governance can be a win-win proposition.