You Can't Starve Government and Blame It Too

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Wall Street Journal

You Can't Starve Government and Blame It Too

Last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform approved a bill to provide paid parental leave to federal workers and thus make government employment more attractive. The committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, reportedly opposed the measure because he fears, among other things, that rascally federal workers will scam the system, piling up child after child just to claim the four weeks of paid leave.

They "could have one adoption or one foster child per year, resulting in every year you get a new foster child," Mr. Issa said, according to the Washington Post. "Every year the husband and wife if they are both federal workers would take four weeks off with pay, because they have simply taken in a new foster child."

Mr. Issa's suspicions may be grotesque but they are also typical of the conservative movement. The government and its bureaucrats are, to the right, ever a malign force -- jealous, power-hungry and greedy. But it's hard to blame someone for failing after you've worked so hard to make them fail.

The world knows about the Republican Party's problems these days -- its purges, denunciations and defections. On the other hand, reconstituting itself as a more uniformly conservative organization might let the GOP free itself from the taint of the Bush years and fight big government in the Reagan manner.

But I doubt it. Even when conservatism is made pure, it won't be able to govern. Its bottomless suspicion toward federal workers is part of the reason.

Let us turn, for further illustration, to a different episode in the career of Mr. Issa. We have already seen what he thinks government bureaucrats are capable of doing. But back in March 2008, when the subject before his committee was CEO compensation in what was then being called the "mortgage crisis," his suspicious streak was nowhere in evidence.

Back then, his sympathy was all with the beleaguered CEOs, who were, he said, the targets of "a hearing in search of, you know, bad guys." He questioned Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide (noting in passing his "tremendous success story") as well as former CEOs of Citigroup and Merrill Lynch but could find no fault in their conduct. After all, as Mr. Issa elegantly put it, they once had "skin in the game" -- which is to say, they owned shares of the companies they ran -- and therefore they could not conceivably be blamed for our troubles.

These days, as one of the premier populists of the right, Mr. Issa demands to know what President Barack Obama knew about the AIG bonuses and when he knew it. And he has turned sharply against Mr. Mozilo, releasing a report two months ago about the sweet mortgages that Countrywide allegedly extended to lawmakers and their relatives.

But back in 2008, he insisted that "the problem starts and ends with the federal government." Among other things, he charged, its regulators "weren't just asleep at the switch but in many ways . . . gave the green light for these practices," meaning the trading of mortgage-backed securities.

On this point, at least, Mr. Issa got it right. The regulators did fail us. They were too cozy with industry and too blinkered by the free-market faith to see the reality unfolding under their noses.

But what ought to make conservatives choke is the fact that those failing agencies were also the product of years of conservative governance, with its well-known hostility to bureaucrats and its apparent determination to make federal work unattractive.

What do government agencies look like when they're run this way? We get a glimpse from a report on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) written in March and released by the Government Accountability Office last week. Thanks to a lack of support staff, lawyers at the SEC's enforcement division say they spent much of their time filing, photocopying, sorting mail, and other routine office chores.

They also say they were not consulted when the SEC's leaders decided on enforcement policies that effectively stifled their efforts, and some "came to see the Commission as less of an ally . . . and more of a barrier."

So this is how it works with conservatives at the helm: We starve government agencies of resources, we keep their employees' pay well below their private-sector counterparts, we make sure they know what we think of them as they wait their turn at the photocopier. Then we demand they protect us when there's a problem with extremely complex financial instruments, whose designers are defended by some of the best-paid lawyers in the world.

And when the regulators inevitably fail? We declare indignantly that the problem begins and ends with them. We stoke bizarre fears about how they might go on child-adopting sprees if we give them the chance. One can almost conclude that they only exist to take, you know, the blame.

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan Books). His other books include The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God. He is the “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of The Baffler.

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