Hiring Kooks?

Over at TNR’s Open University bog, my friend Sandy Levinson has a posting taking note of the fact that Monica Goodling, DOJ’s White House Liason, had a completely conservative evangelical education, starting at Messiah College in PA and ending at Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School. He finds this observation troubling, and believes it is likely to be characteristic of the administration more broadly.

First of all, if it is true more broadly, is it a bad thing? Let me try to explain first why it might not be, depending on what you’re maximizing. If you think the key thing that federal bureaucrats do is making decisions, and those decisions are likely to have a substantial ideological component, and you know that there it is impossible for the White House to actually supervise the entirety of the federal bureaucracy–even its senior political appointees–then you’ve got an institutional problem. In fact, you’ve got a classical principal agent-problem–how do you ensure that a widely dispersed set of agents act in a way that is consistent with the views of their principals at the center? In particular, if you believe that those agents are in fact surrounded by other agents (permanent bureaucrats) who are not particularly sympathetic to the principals’ goals, how do you keep your political appointee agents from going native in order to get along in their local environment? In classical principal-agent models, you solve this problem by either some form of monitoring or by aligning the interests of principals and agents through some sort of incentive structure.

But in cases like this, where performance is hard to measure, where non-decisions are as important as decisions, etc., these mechanisms are unlikely to work. Consequently, the best (and to some degree the only really effective) way to solve the problem is by establishing an identity between the principal and her agents. Lots of agencies with dispersed personnel try to do this with training–think of the Marines, the FBI or Forest Rangers. You put someone through a rigorous training program to change their sense of themselves, so that they will have a strong internal commitment to doing what you want them to do even if they cannot be observed in the field. But this has substantial limits as a strategy where political appointees are concerned–you can’t send them off for 6 months in Parris Island before they become Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Commerce.

Consequently, the best way to ensure an identity between principal and agent is through initial selection on the front end. You want to look for signals that your agents do not care about some of the marks of status of the political mainstream, so that they won’t be likely to feel pressure to conform to the belief of “experts” that what you want them to do is bonkers. In addition, you want to know that this person was willing to make a significant sacrifice in terms of “snob value” of their credentials in order to act on their beliefs–this makes the ideological signal much more credible, since their was a cost associated with it. (this is why Federalist Society membership is no longer as valuable a signal as it once was, since the stigma cost of membership has dropped). Finally, there is a much higher probably that at places like Messiah and Regent your agent will have developed a substantial repetoire of justifications for their beliefs, having learned to defend them against a hostile world. This will minimize the likelihood that they will shrink in the face of disagreement.

Finally, you want your agents out in the field to do what you want them to do without having to be told to do it. In fact, you want them to do what you would ask them to do without your even knowing that it needs to be done. The closest analogue I can think of here is what Ian Kershaw described in his biographies of Hitler as “thinking toward the Fuehrer.” You want your agents to carry around with them in their head a sense of what their principal wants, and to concoct schemes for acheiving it without ever having to pass the decisions through the center. (NOTE: I am NOT saying that the Bush administration is like the Nazis in a normative sense–this is purely an analytical point).

I think that explains the empirical phenomenon under examination. I think it is the case that a very significant percentage of the Republican party sees this as the basic strategic terrain of executive branch politics, and that working with that set of priors, behavior such as that under investigation is rational.

That said, even if we assume that there is something to the underlying assumptions that drive this behavior, that doesn’t mean that it conforms with the broader public interest. Public management at the senior political appointee level involves more than making decisions that accord with a set of ideological priors. There is also a whole range of other skills that are likely to correlate weakly, if at all, with ideological commitment. For example, a large number of Coalitional Provisional Authority personnel were chosen through conservative movement networks. Consequently, they had little knowledge of the language or culture of Iraq, a sense of how to run large, complex operations or to motivate subordinates to produce things like working electricity or water systems. The more you rely on ideology as your sorting system, the less (all things being equal) you are likely to have people with key public management skills. In addition, ideology may be weakly (or even negatively) correlated with procedural or constitutional norms on how agencies should operate.

Now, it is the case that all presidential administrations depend on having a certain number of “true believers” scattered through the bureaucracy, in order to ensure a certain level of fidelity to the president’s objectives. On the other hand, if you get too much of this, you get an administration that is likely to have a high, systemic level of administrative incompetence. I think this is a reasonable account of where we are now.

This is, in part, an institutional problem–how do you ensure that the executive branch does not overweight its political strata with ideological hacks? This should be a primary function of the Senate, exercising its constitutionally orthodox power to confirm presidential nominees for political appointments. For most of the Bush years, Congress punted this function because it had been transformed into the functional equivalent of parliament, doing this bidding of their Prime Minister. But with the return of divided government, we have the ability to reassert something closer to constitutional orthodoxy. The first task of the Democratic Congress should be to engage in close scrutiny of all presidential appointees, making it clear that nominees whose primary qualification is ideological commitment will be given a good raking over the coals. This should make the administration more reticent to nominate such people in the first place, or a least to reduce their propensity to do so. Even though the purpose of this may be partisan (to embarass the administration) its effect would be wholesomely constitutional. “Ambition counteracting ambition,” I think someone once called it…

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.