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Secret Government

By Sheila Kennedy on January 22, 2016 in Civic Blog

A few weeks ago, the Boston Globe ran an article that should be required reading for all of the activists–left and right–proposing deceptively simple”fixes” for what ails government.

The article began by noting candidate Obama’s promises to reign in the NSA, close Guantanamo, and roll back portions of the Patriot Act.

But six years into his administration, the Obama version of national security looks almost indistinguishable from the one he inherited. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The NSA has, if anything, become more aggressive in monitoring Americans. Drone strikes have escalated. Most recently it was reported that the same president who won a Nobel Prize in part for promoting nuclear disarmament is spending up to $1 trillion modernizing and revitalizing America’s nuclear weapons.

Why did the face in the Oval Office change but the policies remain the same? Critics tend to focus on Obama himself, a leader who perhaps has shifted with politics to take a harder line. But Tufts University political scientist Michael J. Glennon has a more pessimistic answer: Obama couldn’t have changed policies much even if he tried….

In a new book, “National Security and Double Government,” he catalogs the ways that the defense and national security apparatus is effectively self-governing, with virtually no accountability, transparency, or checks and balances of any kind. He uses the term “double government”: There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.

The article describes what Glennon came to recognize from a career that included stints as  legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and consultant to various congressional committees and the State Department: in a number of policy areas, but especially national security, the people we elect have limited ability to effect policy change. Bureaucrats–and the systems within which they operate–call the shots far more than most of us realize. As he notes,

It hasn’t been a conscious decision….Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.

The national security apparatus is probably the most extreme example, but the phenomenon that Glennon describes operates, albeit to a lesser extent, in virtually all large bureaucracies, public or private. (There’s a reason business schools and schools of public affairs offer classes in organizational culture—systemic dynamics make change far more daunting than those on the outside realize.)

When you add policy complexity and specialized expertise to systemic inertia, the barriers faced by would-be “change agents” become even more daunting.

This phenomenon is why well-meaning calls for term limits aren’t just naive, but dangerous. When a newly elected Congressman or Senator takes office, he is utterly dependent upon (nameless, unelected) staff to show him the ropes. With term limits, by the time he  learns enough about how it all works to actually be effective, he’s gone. The result is to place even more power in the hands of staff members who have staying power and know how the system works—anonymous functionaries that voters cannot hold accountable.

It would be far better to use the original mechanism for limiting terms: the ballot box. Unfortunately, rampant gerrymandering has removed that option by ensuring that far too many districts are uncompetitive.

It’s a problem.


Sheila HeadshotSheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is the Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis and former Director of the Center for Civic Literacy. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy.  This post was originally published on the blog, sheilakennedy.net and is republished here with the permission of the author.

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