The Reason of the Clerks

Believe it or not, federal bureaucrats can be the taxpayers' best friends.


Capitol Hill can sometimes seem like a corner of Wonderland that even Lewis Carroll shrank from describing. In 1983, for example, I appeared before an appropriations subcommittee in my role as administrator of the largest research organization of its kind in the world, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). I had been called to defend that year's ARS budget request, and I sat at the witness table with my superior, an assistant secretary in the Department of Agriculture.

Looking down at me that day was freshman Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who kept asking me the same questions. "Why," he wanted to know, "do you ask for several million dollars each year for tobacco research? Don't you know that thousands of people are dying right now from lung cancer?"

Durbin, one of the Hill's tobacco haters, was free to grill me on the matter because he was temporarily in charge of the hearing. The man who put him in charge was, ironically, a tobacco supporter, committee chairman Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.). Whitten had left a few minutes earlier for a floor vote, designating Durbin as interim chair. I tried repeatedly to defend the funding. I even turned to my superior, the assistant secretary, and whispered, "Can you say something?"

"You keep on," he mumbled bravely without looking at me.

I did keep on, but with an increasing burden of frustration: The one thing I could not tell Durbin was that I actually agreed with him about tobacco. My staff experts and I had already tried–several times–to cancel tobacco research entirely. The political appointees in the department, weary of me, had even told me never to mention the subject again.

That, however, was in real life. On the Hill, I had a budget to defend in the face of political reality. So this is what I finally said: "As long as tobacco is classified by Congress as an agricultural crop there will be state and federal dollars to support research on it. Besides," I added, "If I don't ask for the funds, angry members of the committee will chastise me and put them in the ARS budget anyway."

Before Durbin could respond, Whitten returned. An assistant whispered to him, and Whitten announced a five-minute recess during which he listened to his staff. Suddenly he pounded the gavel.

"Pick up the record from the point where we left to vote," he told the official recorder. My interchange with Durbin, so far as the record was concerned, had not occurred.

What would appear in the record was a speech–a paean, really–that Whitten then delivered about the vital importance of tobacco research, tobacco's contribution to our economy, and how tobacco is a way of life on many farms. The hearing continued.

And so did the research, which, by the way, was concerned not only with increasing the tobacco farmer's yield but also with identifying the chemical constituents found in tobacco smoke, including, eventually, its carcinogenic components–findings for which the ARS was largely responsible, at the insistent behest of pro-tobacco forces.

I spent 14 years testifying in such hearings, and one theme that ran through them all is that science and politics are a pair of cultures that seldom mix well. Though combining them often results–thanks to the science–in an increase in knowledge beneficial to the general public, it often results as well–thanks to the politics–in a vast waste of the public's money.

In the 1980s, there were 2,800 scientists and engineers working in teams in ARS. As their administrator, I found it frustrating to bring their scientific recommendations before committees of politicians who often ignored them and instead allocated money based on a political agenda. Many politicians had come to their own conclusions about research programs well before such hearings even began.

For example, Sen. Lawton Chiles, now governor of Florida, used to appear at the budget hearing each year just long enough to ask, "Dr. Kinney, do you intend to make any changes in the ARS programs in Florida?" If I answered yes, Chiles would say he disagreed, that he believed there would be no changes. Later, the budget would contain language that confirmed his belief: no changes.

Year after year I heard one of the late Jamie Whitten's favorite maxims: "The executive proposes and the Congress disposes." That is, you career people in the cabinet departments can propose what you want, but we, the appropriating committee, give the final orders.

Who are the career people doing all this proposing? They are men and women who spent decades amassing expertise in disciplines of acknowledged importance to society. If they demonstrated the ability to lead and manage, they might be groomed for executive federal positions. You may know them as "lazy bureaucrats."

Of course, bureaucrats come in many shapes and sizes, and some are more knowledgeable, competent, and productive than others. But in the sizable world of federal research, they must maintain their credibility as scientists, engineers, and researchers within their respective fields while sometimes having to pursue wasteful political goals. These are inconsistent tasks that no scientist wants to try to balance. The perhaps surprising conclusion is that the community of research bureaucrats are often among the taxpayers' better friends in Washington: It is not in their professional interest to do either wasteful or pointless research.

A bureaucrat's-eye view of Washington reveals several communities of power grappling with the public interest in the capital, with the bureaucrat rarely wielding much of that power. He or she must find a way to deal not only with elected politicians but also with appointed officials and hired hands: lobbyists.

Lobbyists, sometimes even more powerful than politicians, have considerably more freedom in Washington than do bureaucrats. They can visit offices on Capitol Hill to pursue their clients' goals whenever they wish; career executives must obtain permission from their political superiors to approach the Hill.

In my career in federal research, many of the lobbyists with whom I dealt represented the interests of universities: There are more than 80 major universities independently represented by Washington lobbyists. In addition, there are such groups as the National Association of Land Grant Colleges and Universities, which may sound to someone outside the capital like an ivory-tower professional society; they haven't watched it work the Hill in pursuit of federal money.

Once any new administration settles into power, a horde of political appointees descends: Thousands of people loyal to the winning president's party flood Washington. For the most part they are very young people promised an opportunity to impart their "revolutionary, problem-solving ideas" to the agency heads and other "lazy, ignorant bureaucrats." Most are dedicated to ferreting out the waste, fraud, and abuse they heard about during the campaign.

As an expert on livestock production, I was once summoned to the office of one such young man. Waiting in the outer office for a long time, I could hear him and some colleagues gasp excitedly as they pointed out some apparent errors in wheat production records. Apparently they were checking an announcement that the head of the Statistical Reporting Service, an experienced economist, had made in the secretary's staff meeting that morning. He had alerted the staff about an imminent shortage of wheat for export. One young man was suspicious.

He turned up some records that he thought conflicted with the economist's statement and leaped to the conclusion that there might be some price fixing in the making. He assured those who attended the meeting that he had added up all the latest production records the Department of Agriculture had compiled for each state. "There was much more wheat produced this year than there was last year. How could they even think there is a shortage?" he barked.

When the others had left and the young man invited me in, I asked him, "What kind of wheat were you talking about?"

Obviously perturbed, he retorted, "American wheat, of course!" Familiar with the export wheat shortage alert, I asked, "Do you understand the differences in hard red winter wheat, soft red wheat, durum wheat…?" He interrupted, "I don't intend to discuss wheat with you. I want to tell you about a production opportunity that will promote a major new agricultural industry. Perhaps you have heard of my proposal, because I wrote to the previous secretary of agriculture several times."

"Go ahead. I'm anxious to discuss any new ideas."

"Good," he said. "This program can be cranked up very quickly. Rabbits are not like beef or pork; you can produce thousands of them quickly in cages." He continued excitedly, "Under the cages you can grow earthworms to sell for bait. Finally, you sell the humus and start all over again. I've been doing it for years."

His comment about earthworms brought me up short. I'd been the one who had prepared a polite, "thanks-but-no-thanks" letter for the secretary's signature in response to his idea. I sat quietly until he prodded me with, "Well?"

"Very few Americans eat store-bought rabbit meat," I said. "Even if they did, no slaughterhouses for rabbits exist near metropolitan areas. The earthworms are a good idea, if you can get them without the rabbits, but don't mention bunny rabbit fur coats. The animal rights people will run the secretary out of Washington." Within six months he and the other zealous young people were themselves out of Washington, taking the ideas they'd brought with them.

In 1980, President Reagan signaled a ray of hope in the form of a campaign promise of "A New Federalism." It sounded very much like today's political commitments to block-grant billions of program dollars to the states. Thousands of programs would be canceled or turned back to the states where they belonged. The idea was applauded by federal career executives. Immediately after Reagan's election, word went out to all agency heads: Start preparing a list of programs that can either be closed or turned back to one or more states.

Like other career administrators, I was thrilled with Reagan's commitment. We had tried for years to close out some programs that were not solving serious problems, while other, more serious, research needs went begging. The sheer political clout of some senators and representatives had kept many useless programs going for decades. We worked feverishly on plans.

In one simple plan we proposed to move three bee researchers from Wyoming to Texas to expand research on the African bee, migrating rapidly north from Mexico. We would use funds saved from the bee research to conduct studies to help solve a serious soil erosion problem in Wyoming. Over long months we developed every detail of the move. We had even obtained the cooperation of university and state officials and important congressmen and senators. Then came a phone call passed from the secretary and on to me: "Don't move the bee research."

Two days later came another telephone message: "Proceed with the soil erosion project."

"Where will we get the money?" I asked.

"Find it somewhere," I was told.

What had happened? The president needed votes for his MX Missile Program. The bee and the soil erosion programs were two of the price tags Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) put on his vote. (Agency heads and their staffs have extensive and reliable grapevines by which they learn such things.)

By 1982, experienced federal executives knew that the New Federalism was simply campaign rhetoric subject to political whims.

There are always people at the White House who, when they want to put the bite on someone, will use the president's teeth. Others, whether in industry, the academy, or elsewhere, bite with the teeth of congressmen. Usually, with the snap of a powerful jaw, the efforts of knowledgeable but politically toothless career bureaucrats will be frustrated. But I recall occasions, one in particular, when both program and political logic prevailed. A politician listened to reason rather than to a lobbyist.

The plum at issue was a federal biotechnology center, which ARS wanted to establish, if possible, at one of its existing locations, preferably in conjunction with a nearby university engaged in related research. With a lot of federal money at stake, I soon received 10 requests from university officials urging me to seek funds to build the center on their campus. None of these self-serving proposals were satisfactory, and I had rebuffed them all. Then came the real pressure.

My superior called me to his office to tell me about "a great opportunity": a biotechnology center at–imagine this–a major university. An official of the school–which I had already turned down–was even there to impart this good news, a man I had known for years. His proposal was, of course, no different from those I had rejected. "I'll need 24 hours to consider your proposal," I said morosely and rose to leave. "We've got our congressman committed to this, Terry," my university colleague said softly. "We can run over you if we have to."

We were about to spend tens of millions of dollars to build a biotech center in the wrong place. What was I going to do? I knew the congressman: New York Democrat Matthew F. McHugh. I had had good relations with him for years. He was not only a reasonable man, he was almost a hero to me. In Washington heroes are hard to find. That same day a call came from McHugh's assistant. "Can you come to the congressman's office right away? Alone?"

"I'll catch a cab."

McHugh explained the situation. Most of his constituents were also supporters of the school. They would be furious if he did not seek funds for the center. Yet personally, he confided, he could not honestly support it. "It's just a ploy to get more money for the university," he said. "I'm in a real bind. Any suggestions?"

I felt a flood of relief. "I know exactly how you can take yourself out of this," I told him. He should tell the school that he needed a memo indicating the Department of Agriculture's support of the university as the best possible site in the United States for the proposed center, and that this memo need only be signed by the assistant secretary for science and education–my superior–and by the ARS administrator: me.

Such a request by McHugh would appear to confirm, on the record, his willingness to support the university. But it would also signal the school to back off. Not only did all the parties involved know that I wouldn't sign such a memo, we also knew that the university had a number of other projects in development at the department, projects that it wouldn't want to jeopardize by an aggressive and ultimately futile campaign for the proposed center. The school quietly dropped its effort.

It was a case in which I was able to fight politics with politics. But the good feeling of this win was short-lived. In many other cases I was not so successful. In one of them, I traveled to Maine with a team of scientists to review a potato research program. We found the research to be excellent: The results were helping U.S. potato growers remain a jump ahead of the Canadians, our chief competitors. The station leader and the rest of us agreed that the program had plenty of money.

Back in the office two days later, I received a message which originated in the vice president's office. "Put another $90,000 at the potato station," I was told. "Where do I get it?"

"Find it," came the usual reply.

Soon the vice president's office called again. "Keep the cotton gin," was the message this time. We had announced plans, after the declaration of a "New Federalism," to close a cotton ginning research program in New Mexico that was obsolete and badly in need of repair. We had two superior cotton ginning research locations in major cotton-producing states.

When the appropriations came through, however, money was included to continue the program–plus $300,000 to repair and operate a facility our experts said we didn't need. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had served some people back home very well. In the process, he ignored experts and wasted millions of dollars. Politics had beat out expertise once again.

And the beat goes on, whether it is the hog-farming senator who has raised the federal price support for hogs; the tobacco-state politicians who maintain price supports even as scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency research tobacco's dangers; or the politicians who double as AIDS theorists, proposing reductions in research budgets.

Can politicians and career professionals ever find a way to make their disparate agendas coincide? I think they can: The base-closing commission, which recently succeeded in shuttering unneeded and obsolete military bases, is an excellent model. In that case, both the executive and legislative branches agreed beforehand to accept the recommendations of the commission, thus taking themselves off the hook. Real experts were allowed to exercise the magic of logic, and they pulled off the trick of reduced military spending.

Why not wave this wand of expertise over other parts of the government? If politicians would agree to accept each agency head's recommendation for budget reductions, some meaningful cuts could be made–and made to stick. Agency heads could readily identify pork from the past, obsolete programs that could be terminated, and research locations that could be closed. They know–better than anyone–where the waste, fraud, and abuse are: They are forced to administer it. Billions of dollars could be saved. I had a rare opportunity to effect just such savings in the 1980s when Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block allowed me to restructure the ARS. In two years, we eliminated 300 administrative positions, closed many locations, and saved $16 million in annual expenses. Secretary Block ran interference for us and, for a while, stymied the efforts of politicians who objected to the project, although ultimately the pressure of politics did bring our actions to a halt.

Many federal employees are internationally recognized for their knowledge in biological, physical, economic, social, or other sciences. Our political leaders, in a revolutionary move, could mandate these experts to make program decisions based on their own expertise in their own fields. Political experts can set policies, budget limitations, and broad program objectives, but program experts should administer programs.

We need the bureaucrats.

Terry B. Kinney Jr. was the administrator of the Agricultural Research Service from 1980 until 1988. He is now retired.