Pournelle’s Iron Law Of Bureaucracy, FEMA, and Republican Incompetence

In another thread, Ron – I suspect with tongue in cheek – quoted Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

In every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

Charles, responding in that thread, made a good point:

FEMA under Bush and Obama is a nice example of the way in which this sort of blind, stupid disbelief in the effectiveness of government at providing public services is a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than any sort of Iron Rule. Put people in charge at the highest level who believe that government is just an ideological and patronage tool, and you get “Heck of a Job” Brownie. Put people in charge of government who believe that government can serve the public good, and you get a well organized machine providing critical life saving services.

Kevin Drum, thinking along similar lines, writes “At a deep ideological level, Republicans believe that federal bureaucracies are inherently inept, so when Republicans occupy the White House they have no interest in making the federal bureaucracy work.” Illustrating his point, Drum provides a recent history of FEMA’s leadership:

George H.W. Bush: Appoints Wallace Stickney, head of New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation, as head of FEMA. Stickney is a hapless choice and the agency is rapidly driven into the ditch: “Because FEMA had 10 times the proportion of political appointees of most other government agencies, the poorly chosen Bush appointees had a profound effect on the performance of the agency.”

Bill Clinton: Appoints James Lee Witt, former head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services, as head of FEMA. The agency is reborn as a professional operation: “As amazing as it sounds, Witt was the first FEMA head who came to the position with direct experience in emergency management….On Witt’s recommendation, Clinton filled most of the FEMA jobs reserved for political appointees with persons who had previous experience in natural disasters and intergovernmental relations.”

George W. Bush: Appoints Joe Allbaugh, his 2000 campaign manager, as head of FEMA. Allbaugh explains that his role is to downsize FEMA and privatize its functions: “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters.” Once again, the agency goes downhill: “[Allbaugh] showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed Witt….Those of us in the business of dealing with emergencies find ourselves with no national leadership and no mentors. We are being forced to fend for ourselves.”

Allbaugh quits after only two years and George W. Bush downgrades FEMA from a cabinet-level agency and appoints Allbaugh’s deputy, Michael Brown, former Commissioner of Judges and Stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, as FEMA’s head. A former employer, Stephen Jones, is gobsmacked when he hears about it: “Brown was pleasant enough, if a bit opportunistic, Jones said, but he did not put enough time and energy into his job. ‘He would have been better suited to be a small city or county lawyer,’ he said.”

Barack Obama: Appoints Craig Fugate, Florida’s state emergency management director, as head of FEMA. Fugate immediately revives FEMA, receiving widespread praise for the agency’s handling of the devastating tornadoes that ripped across seven Southern states last year: “Under Fugate’s leadership, an unimaginable natural disaster literally has paved the way for a textbook lesson in FEMA crisis management….Once the laughingstock of the federal bureaucracy after the bumbling, dithering tenure of director Michael Brown, FEMA under Fugate prepares for the worst and hopes for the best rather than the other way around.”

Some Republicans are objecting to Sandy being “politicized.” But how the Federal government responds to disaster is a legitimate policy issue, and it seems disingenuous at best for Republicans to claim that it’s wrong to discuss a policy question at a time when that question is most relevant. From the New York Times:

Over the last two years, Congressional Republicans have forced a 43 percent reduction in the primary FEMA grants that pay for disaster preparedness. Representatives Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and other House Republicans have repeatedly tried to refuse FEMA’s budget requests when disasters are more expensive than predicted, or have demanded that other valuable programs be cut to pay for them. The Ryan budget, which Mr. Romney praised as “an excellent piece of work,” would result in severe cutbacks to the agency, as would the Republican-instigated sequester, which would cut disaster relief by 8.2 percent on top of earlier reductions.

Romney himself, of course, endorsed privatizing disaster response when he was asked about FEMA funding during a primary debate:

Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.

That’s an inane and irresponsible position to take (and one, unsurprisingly, Romney has walked back a bit this week). But that’s pretty much the best thinking available in the Republican party at this time – it’s not as if any of the other leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination were any better. Anti-government and anti-tax ideologues rule the GOP; and if you’re not allowed to question that all taxes are evil and all tax cuts are good, it follows that all government spending is wasted and all service cuts beneficial, regardless of the reality.

The cuts to FEMA are even more irresponsible when you consider that Republicans have stood strongly against any policies to mitigate or reduce the effects of global warming (Mitt Romney openly mocks the idea of trying to address rising sea levels). And at the highest levels of the GOP, many still doubt that global warming is real, or caused by human activity.

But the reality that Republicans refuse to face is, global warming is real. And global warming makes events like Sandy both more likely and more destructive. We not only have to stop cutting FEMA’s budget, we need to raise it to higher than ever before, because we are going to be facing more weather disasters than before. The first step in addressing any problem is admitting that the problem exists; unfortunately, the GOP is incapable of taking that first step, and Republican voters are not at all inclined to hold their leadership’s feet to the fire.

Of course, the Democrats have hardly covered themselves with glory; Obama’s budget calls for a 2% FEMA cut, and Democrats have been frightened of talking about global warming at all. But at least Democrats don’t have an ideology that embraces failure and incompetence as inevitable. I’m sure that FEMA will make some mistakes in its response to Sandy – given the scope of operations and the thousands of decisions that have to be made quickly, mistakes are inevitable. But I’m confident that Craig Fugate is someone who has the background needed to make those decisions and minimize the errors, and that he’s not approaching his job with the belief that FEMA cannot be run well and probably shouldn’t exist at all.

If John McCain had won the 2008 election, some crony of his with zero background in disaster management would now be stumbling around and making excuses for his inaction in front of the cameras. Is there any reason to believe we’d be better off with that person than we are with Craig Fugate?

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3 Responses to Pournelle’s Iron Law Of Bureaucracy, FEMA, and Republican Incompetence

  1. 1
    Copyleft says:

    “Republicans believe that government is inherently stupid, corrupt, and incompetent–and if you elect them, they’ll prove it.”

  2. 2
    Jonathon Dalton says:

    As one of the aforementioned “dedicated classroom teachers,” and having spent the past few years in a local climate of spending cuts and job action, I have to say, I take extreme issue with the “iron law.” I’m not sure it’s even an iron suggestion. There is a force that balances out the natural tendency for bureaucracy to accumulate, and it’s a powerful one. Democracy. Union leaders are elected by their membership. The power they have has been given through the ballot box, and it can be taken away using the same tool. Without getting into specifics, I have seen ample evidence that the power of officials within their own union can go down as well as up. And as for school administrators, in my district I have seen their number and relative power go up, and I have also seen both go down. A change in the school board elected by the people makes all the difference in the world. Corporations have their bottom line to (hopefully) rein in the most ridiculous of their ideas, but government institutions have the electorate. We are not some unchained monster. As long as eligible voters do their civic duty and pay attention.

  3. 3
    Hugh says:

    The general principle Republicans and other conservatives hold is “Government is inefficient and can’t do anything, except the things I want it to do”.