Home / Robert Farley / Bureaucratic Resilience

Bureaucratic Resilience


This is simply wrong:

One of the principal aspects that make the “weak presidency” claim so laughable is that the post-World-War II presidency has done virtually nothing but expand in power. The President controls virtually the entire Pentagon and intelligence industry, and all administrative agencies, with very few limits. That includes a massive amount of jobs, contracts, access, and projects the White House single-handedly directs, and the President can expand or cancel a whole slew of pet projects for various members of Congress and their home states or districts.

This is, it’s fair to say, a brutal misunderstanding of the relationship between the President and the national security bureaucracy. The White House does not, in point of fact, single-handedly direct projects that can, in any significant number, be canceled or redirected at executive whim. Each expansion of executive power creates an institutional manifestation of that power; the institutional manifestation then produces, in and of itself, an interest group with powerful incentives in favor of the status quo. These interest groups have multiple ways in which they can check executive power, including intra-administrative regulation, labor protection, and congressional influence. The vast majority of the employees of the executive branch are career civil servants who continue to enjoy considerable control (as they should) over hiring, firing, and placement. Non-governmental employees also enjoy a variety of protections while under government contract. The money spent on the national security bureaucracy flows to a large number of states and congressional districts, vesting interests within those that support executive power in effect if not in principle. These structures are not infinitely plastic; they cannot be moved from district to district at executive whim. Simply put, just because the President technically has control over a particular budget does not mean that he or she has the practical ability to slash or multiply at will.

This is not, I should hasten to add, part of an “Obama apologist meme.” Bureaucracies, especially large ones associated with the state, are deeply resistant to change, and manifest that resistance in any number of ways. This is not a phenomenon that is limited to the Obama administration, or to the United States government. In every state (and, indeed, in every corporation) the power of the executive is limited in ways that aren’t obvious from a surface legal analysis. Observing this hardly constitutes an apology for the executive. At risk of Godwin, Hitler and Stalin were unable to coerce their bureaucracies into doing precisely what they wanted, in spite of minimal legal obstacles to executive power.

…to add a bit, the idea that the US presidency is relatively weak compared to other executive offices is not new to the Obama administration. It is an argument that has, the “imperial presidency” notwithstanding, been made repeatedly over the last fifty years by political scientists specializing in American and comparative politics. Repeating this argument hardly makes one an “Obama apologist”; skeptics of the comparative power of the US executive may be wrong, but they aren’t specific to the Obama administration. Indeed, more than a few of the same liberal pundits that Greenwald assails have noted that George W. Bush accomplished relatively few of his domestic priorities, in spite of enjoying significant congressional majorities for several years of his two terms. In foreign policy the situation is different, and indeed Greenwald allows that “honest” discussants of American executive power have noted the difference between domestic and foreign executive latitude.

None of this is to say that the Presidency is “helpless”; rather, it’s really important, and people should take it very seriously. People should also take Senate elections, which are altogether less important than the Presidency, very seriously. However, I haven’t really seen anyone claim that the US Presidency is “weak, helpless, and impotent”; Glenn certainly intimates that his interlocutors have this view, but he fails to demonstrate such, and my own cursory reading of the discussion has thus far failed to uncover anyone who holds such a view of the US executive.

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