Artful dodgers 

When all else fails, shuffle the deck and deal again

Everyone knows what you do when trouble is headed your way. You either confront it or you dodge it. Faced with a trainload of trouble from whistleblowers in the FBI, intelligence failures in the CIA, and a total loss of direction in the undeclared “war on terror,” President Bush has decided to dodge the tough questions and the equally tough answers by announcing his intent to establish the Office of Homeland Security as a cabinet-level agency. While a befuddled Congress scratches its collective, muzzy head over the secretly-developed plan, the Artful Dodger dances merrily away, wrapped in the flag and quietly whistling Dixie.

Executive branch reorganizations are an old and much-used political trick. Montanans will remember well Gov. Marc Racicot’s much-ballyhooed reorganization of our state government. Slathering on the buzzwords of the day, Racicot spared no expense to assure us that his plan to reorganize the executive agencies was nothing less than “reinventing government.” We were shown—through an endless series of charts, graphs, arrows, and boxes—that when all was said and done, state government would be “more efficient and effective” and better structured to “serve the customers.” Granted, most citizens probably never thought of themselves as “customers” of government (I mean, do we have a choice?), but the pledge of better service sounded good anyway.

And so the deck was shuffled. A Reorganization Task Force was appointed. This agency or that was subsumed or renamed. Mission and “vision” statements were laboriously crafted. New stationary and business cards were printed for the newly-named, newly-tasked agencies. In the process, hundreds of employees and all their desks, computers, file cabinets and phones were boxed up, transported from one building to another, and moved into newly-constructed cubicles. As one capital wag put it, “The only ones that got anything out of it were the printers and the moving companies.”

Years later, the folly is clear. Do we have more efficient and effective government? No way—at least not by the standard definitions of the words. Are the “customers” better served? Ask those facing the looming budget cuts.

Sorry to say, many of the “customers” will no longer be served at all. Didn’t it at least trim the cost of government? Sorry again. Government spending grew exponentially during Racicot’s administration. What we got was less efficient, less effective, bigger and more expensive government.

So what benefit did we see from reorganization? The answer is the same for Racicot as it will be for Bush. The main benefit of shuffling the cards was to dodge the responsibility of leadership while maintaining the illusion of same. For years after “reorganization,” it was disorganization that reigned. Employees didn’t know whom to contact for what. Neither did citizens or businesses. Old turf battles continued, only now on new turf. Responsibility for “serving the customers” disappeared behind the ready excuse (and unfortunate reality) of reorganization. It wasn’t even possible to track budget efficiencies because, obviously, there was no record for the new agencies. Spending, production, and “customer satisfaction” couldn’t be measured because there was nothing to compare them to but the old agencies—and they no longer existed.

Comes now President Bush with the same artful dodge in the new disguise of “Homeland Security”—only this plan carries far greater consequences for the citizenry. With Cheney’s role as CEO of Halliburton under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for Enron-style “aggressive accounting,” and faced with a barrage of questions about who knew what and when in the FBI, CIA, and White House, Bush has decided to dodge the problems and distract the nation’s attention with a whole new game. Under the Bush plan (actually crafted in secret by Cheney), a host of agencies will now be merged into one giant bureaucracy at an initial projected cost to taxpayers of $37 billion.

Now, what do you think will happen when 170,000 employees from such diverse agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Coast Guard, Customs Service, and about 90 other agencies are merged into one, new mega-agency? Will there be turf battles? Will there be disgruntled employees? Will “the customers” get lost in the resulting confusion? The answers to these and a thousand more questions will all be a resounding “YES.”

In the meantime, puzzled lawmakers on Capitol Hill are wondering, “But why didn’t the president address the problems with the two agencies MOST responsible for national security: the CIA and the FBI?” The answer, of course, is that President Bush is doing just what Racicot did and what all would-be-leaders-who-can’t-lead do: He’s obfuscating the issues, tossing up enormous smokescreens, and dodging the real problems that would require real leadership in favor of a non-solution that will confound and confuse would-be critics for years to come.

Remember when Racicot left? During eight long years in the governor’s office, with massive Republican majorities controlling the Legislature and record high popularity, Racicot could have done whatever he wanted. Not in recent memory was one individual in this state granted a better opportunity to lead us into a new century. Yet in the end, the reality of his tenure was so disappointing that the “Legacy Report” he hoped to compile of his accomplishments never got written. Some would blame it on the public’s rejection of the idea, but the truth is, once the agencies started looking for the successes under the Racicot administration they realized it would be a thin report, indeed, and dumped the whole project.

Nonetheless, the ploy worked wonderfully. Racicot left the state for the far greener (as in greenbacks) pastures of Washington, still maintaining the illusion of effective leadership. Bush is hoping to do the same. Keeping Congress busy trying to untie the Gordian Knot of this new plan—and questioning the patriotism of anyone who dares criticize it—allows this non-leader to artfully dodge his way through another year of a faltering, scandalous, and horrifically dangerous presidency. 

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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