Canaries

The miners knew…
When dark dust clogged their pores,
Clouded their minds, and obscured their vision,
And necessity drove them back each day into the dark,
The sensitive canary would warn them of their danger
By being the first to die.

My heart today is aching. My ideals,
Bludgeoned by cynics, and beliefs, battered by lies,
Are choking on the gas of decomposing politics.
The sweet canary’s song is getting louder: “Get Out Now!”

But there is no way out.
Shafts of light are being plugged, one after another; and
The path we came by only goes one way.
We can shout with the last of our breath,
Claw at the rock with our nails, but
Who is there to dig us out?
We were to be our own protectors.

We go to work each day now, picking for peace and digging for justice,
Entering neath the faded sign: “pledged to be more perfect.”
“One for all” we chant as we march to our labors,
While our beautiful canaries are dying.

Choices

As a career mediator, I’m shocked to hear myself say this, but I fear our polarized country is facing an impasse leaving us no choice but to choose sides and fight.

My job for 30 years was to help people locked in high stakes conflicts find opportunities for compromise through which each party could realize enough of their objectives that settlement was preferable to the risks of losing or the costs of litigation. On a very good day, creative resolutions could be found that left all parties in a better position than before the litigation started. Every once in a while, however, a case would come along in which one party’s actual goal was to destroy the other, financially or perhaps emotionally. When that became clear, I would have to advise the parties of the fact and send them home. No compromise or problem solving magic can entice a party to agree to be destroyed; they have no choice but to fight it out and hope for the best.

Those who are leading and following the movement to overturn the November elections are not asking for a solution to a disagreement on policy or principle. Whether from a passionate but misinformed belief the election was stolen or from motives more sinister, the President’s followers are refusing to accept the outcomes of Constitutionally sound elections and court decisions upholding them. Their concerns have been addressed through recounts and litigation; the accusations of fraud have been answered and found to be false. There is nothing left to say or offer to those who only want Donald Trump to remain in office. There is no legal or Constitutional way to do so.

The attack on the Capitol and promised future violent action seek to overthrow democratic institutions. They are direct attacks on the nation’s 250 year old democracy. Whether the president who refuses to cede power is crazy or sly; whether his followers are misled and believe they are saving the country or are anarchists, white supremacists, and hoodlums, the position they are creating for the country is the same: either capitulate to their demand that elections be overturned, or oppose them with all force necessary to protect the country’s democratic government.

It seems like a very foolish position for the election challengers to force on the country. Their motives are relevant but of secondary importance. Their goal of destroying the country’s constitutional order, whether deliberate or simply de facto, must and will be vigorously fought. If they lose, they will be known as traitors and treasonists.

To say this is an historical moment is an understatement. There is no room now for compromise or equivocation. Leaders and citizens alike must decide which side of this historical position they will be on. Either defend with our voices, our laws, and our votes the Constitutional order on which we base our liberty, or yield to an extra-constitutional authoritarian power grab.

Deep State—Part 4

The importance of integrity

Government has a great deal of power in any society, probably no less so in a first world democracy than in a dictatorship. It can restrict our freedom and take our property, even take our lives, and its operations are mostly outside our daily purview. Eventually, a government will reflect and enforce the values of whomever controls it; in a democracy, that should be we the people.

After conferring on it extensive rights and power, we hope and expect the government will exercise its authority in accordance with our collective will, for our collective benefit. We ask it, as our agent, to represent and effectuate our national standards and values. In my experience, the vast majority of government employees do just that. In fact, they are required to.

Defense Department employees, for example, take periodic certification training in the practical application of Executive Order 12674, an Order that applies to all federal employees and explicates detailed ethical obligations such as these:

It has never been written into law that the federal government’s CEO, the President, is subject to the same rules as other government workers. Apparently, no one thought it necessary. Presidents are assumed to be the apex representatives of the country and its citizens. They are entrusted to control the executive branch of government for the protection and benefit of the entire country. A president who would deliberately corrupt the capability of the professional government to perform its duties, or undermine its public mission with demands to advance illegitimate interests, would do far wider damage to the country than with any single illicit act.

There are two definitions and two ways to think about government integrity. First is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles,” qualities to which most of us aspire, have asked of our leaders, and expected our government to represent. But a second relates to “the state of being whole and undivided.” To have integrity, government’s behavior and our expectations must honestly reflect our values.

We can only expect our government to tell us the truth, respect our rights, not waste our tax dollars, and perform their duties with competence and expertise if we as a society respect and embody truth, honesty, and expertise ourselves. Institutional integrity cannot be established by hypocrisy or without personal integrity at the top. 

Winds of political corruption have been blowing strong through our democracy of late, bending norms and institutions that are largely maintained by government bureaucracy. Notably, most of reported corruption is being committed and directed by elected and politically appointed officials, not by career employees. If we the (voting) people have decided that corruption is acceptable, we must anticipate and accept that a corrupt professional government will follow. If we have given up on Democracy, we should be ready for authoritarian control of government’s vast power for a single individual’s purposes. But if you find the thought of an enormous, powerful, corrupt and authoritarian government as frightening as I do, I hope you will stay vigilant and help protect the independence, expertise, and integrity of government employees and their ability to stand strong for the public interest first and always.

Democracy, Rupublicans, and The Construction of Courage

It’s doubtful anyone wakes up one morning to find themselves suddenly full of courage, not the kind that comes from character. The courage to face our fears, to tell the truth when it’s awkward or costly, or to turn away from temptation and stick with our principles, is constructed from experiences of doing so. Like death from a thousand cuts, strength of character is an accumulation of a thousand choices to do the right thing, rewarded by the increased strength, insight, and self-respect that comes from it.

It is not hyperbole to say American democracy is being mortally threatened by a sociopathic president pathologically compelled to remain in office after losing his election. He is a dangerously sick individual who cannot be expected to know, let alone do the right thing. Can one such person really bring down the country? The answer is an almost unthinkable “maybe,” if those who can stop him won’t.

Who would that be?

Democrats, playing by the rules, have done what they can to oppose the President’s claims to extra-constitutional power; they impeached him and now have defeated him in the election. Republicans blew off the impeachment trial and now are refusing to recognize the election. Even the Supreme Court, with a new majority whose ideology and political agenda is…let’s say unclear, can only opine on the illegality of the president’s actions; they have no power to enforce their rulings against an executive who simply refuses to leave. That leaves the military, but a military expulsion of a sitting president would be a kind of coup and as much a Constitutional failure as an unelected president refusing to leave office.

That brings us back to the Republican Party and Congressional leadership…and courage. Had they been speaking out on behalf of democratic principles all along, they would be better prepared to manage today’s extreme circumstances. Instead, most have cowered, rationalized, and dissembled in the face of Trump’s steadily increasing assaults on norms and laws. Each time they allowed him to lie or claim extra-Constitutional power or abuse his office without challenge, Trump gained more strength from his base and more control over them. As those who spoke against him were systematically purged from the party or professionally ruined, he grew more dangerous. Today, only those planning to retire and Mitt Romney will say Trump lost the election and should leave.

So what are the chances the Republican Party or the Republican controlled Senate will exercise their authority to force Mr. Trump to do his duty and transition the presidency when they have been so afraid to do so to date? This is where I feel uncharacteristically fearful. As Mr. Trump’s willingness and ability to wreak havoc intensifies, it will take more and more courage for individual Republicans to oppose him. It is widely assumed the ever-vindictive Trump will remain politically active and command his cultish base for years to come so the risk of opposition may never go away. My fear is if Mr. Trump continues to insist he is entitled to stay in office, and continues to use his presidential powers to resist removal, the risks of opposing him will grow, and the alternative–to join him in the attempt to assume unconstitutional power—which several Republicans are doing already by not just questioning but denying the election results, will look easier and safer by comparison.

This is where character and courage might determine our national fate in the very near future. As the president tests the waters, looking for ways to press his fantasy of victory into reality, will Republican leadership finally step up and tell the President “no,” that he must go? If they have not exercised the courage to protect the country from the want-to-be dictator so far, will they suddenly find the strength to face Trump’s wrath by opposing him now? We will soon see.

Deep State—Part 3

(This is the third in a planned series of four short essays on the “deep state.” Coincidentally, President Trump today is undermining the professional government by ordering staff to obstruct President Elect Biden’s transition team, firing insufficiently loyal appointees, and planting personal loyalists in traditionally non-political senior executive positions.)

The importance of competence

Hostility toward our professional government is costing our country dearly. As narrow special interests compete for national policy primacy, often the only voice speaking expressly for the national interest is the government itself—the professionals and experts hired to understand and protect those interests. That voice should be clear and respected.

The Covid pandemic has illustrated how complex problems can arise that call for prepared, centralized expertise to prevent catastrophic consequences. Not all are as sudden or dramatic, but there are countless problems and threats to our national interests and security that are being studied and addressed by government agents of all kinds. Knowing this expertise is in place 24/7 allows us to go comfortably about our own lives and sleep at night. The Left and Right can argue all day about whether the invisible hand of capitalism can solve certain problems more efficiently than government, but it’s government to which we assign the duty of watching out for and protecting the nation against threats—big and small, foreign and domestic, physical and economic.

Ironically, the importance of government competence often is most noticeable in its failures, as when the CDC flubs a Corona virus test or the FAA approves a faulty Boing flight computer program. Citizens are rightfully quick to criticize their employees’ mistakes. We should keep in mind, however, that we need the CDC and the FAA and we need them to function well; the solution to performance errors should be to insist on greater competence not less government.

Until all humans evolve to moral perfection anarchy is not a viable option and hoping for government to fail or go away is self-defeating and naïve.  Government is still the mechanism, the infrastructure, through which a democratic society organizes, regulates, and protects itself. The more skillfully it operates, the more well-functioning a society will be. Sabotaging government agencies by slashing budgets and appointing officials hostile to their mission is administratively and economically dumb! It should also be illegal; it’s wasting taxpayers’ money. Instead we should use our democratic processes to demand three qualities from our government:

Effectiveness

Functions of government generally are set by law, making them job duties assigned by the public. Most public service jobs have been deemed necessary, many are essential, and some are existentially critical. People holding these positions should be compensated appropriately and given the support needed to do the job, and their performance should meet the same high standards that would be expected in any large well-functioning private enterprise.

Accountability
Duties assigned to public employees, whether by the Constitution or statute, should be faithfully performed. Poor performance of any legal function by any public servant should not be acceptable. This must include elected and appointed senior executives. A cabinet secretary should be no more exempt from failures to perform the duties of her office than any other salaried federal employee.

Transparency

With few exceptions, performance of all government functions should be open to public scrutiny. Overusing security classifications and executive privilege to hide bad decisions, and ignoring or firing inspectors general to avoid investigation or criticism, for examples, contribute to a culture in which government officials can operate beyond question or even above the law.

If this all seems obvious, it should be. It’s first a question of attitude. Do citizens expect a high functioning government bureaucracy, and will they demand it?  We the people are the government’s board of directors. We elect a president and senators who approve the president’s senior executive appointees. Failures of competence are ultimately our responsibility.

 

The Deep State–Part 2

(This is the second of four short essays on the Deep State being published at bobrack.com or ontheotherhand xyz. Part 2 is being published as the President is rejecting the legitimacy of the 2020 elections)

The importance of an independence

Last week President Trump signed an executive order expanding by hundreds of thousands the number of federal employees whose positions would be exempt from civil service protections. If enacted, career government experts—scientists, lawyers, and administrative professionals in policy influencing position–would be subject to political hiring and firing at the whim of whatever political party is in control of the White House. Thus, presumably, they would come and go with each administration and serve only that administration’s interests and priorities. This would be a huge mistake. Few of the nation’s biggest challenges arise and end within one president’s term, and few such political appointees could have the scope of time and relevant knowledge of a career expert.

From forty years of experience in and around both state and federal government, I have some understanding of the unique challenges involved in managing government functions in a civil service environment. I believe when Donald Trump complains about a “deep state” being out to get him, he is mostly wrong; but when he or any politically ambitious leader complains about government bureaucracy being largely outside their personal control, they are largely correct. And that’s a good thing.

Non-patronage government employees are directed and supervised by their bosses, but they ultimately work for the people their functions are funded to serve. Most take pride in that. Their loyalty and sense of responsibility are to their fellow citizens and the mission they are serving on the citizens’ behalf. While elected executives and their administrations come and go, government staff devote their working lives to learning the context and substance of their jobs. They get good at them. The more dedicated ones get very good at them.

Politicians bent on a personal or partisan agenda can be frustrated by career bureaucrats’ insistence on doing the job they understand needs to be done for the public good. Sometimes that insistence can create resistance to change, sometimes even an inertia that slows or prevents progress. But more often, in my experience, it stabilizes the institution and prevents mistakes with potentially dire consequences the ambitious political leader either doesn’t see or disregards.

Wise political appointees understand the difference between managing within a hierarchical corporate power structure with the singular goal of increasing profits–the private sector–and management of government services for an almost incalculable array of interests. The differences are important in both substance and required management styles. Civil servants have chosen a career rewarded more with stability than opportunity for wealth. Salaries and benefits for entry- and mid-level government positions have traditionally been slightly higher and more secure than comparable private sector jobs. (That may not be as true today.) With little direct control over individual public employees’ remuneration, financial inducements and threats are less availing as motivators than they are in the private sector. The most effective way to lead and motivate that I have seen in government is by example, competence, and a clear commitment to the public good.

American government was designed, as John Adams said, as “a system of laws, not of men.” It’s a resilient, self-correcting system that has functioned remarkably well from almost any perspective. Countries that rely on networks of political and personal relationships, rather than on transparent and widely accepted rules, have lacked our country’s productivity and ability to provide for the care and wellbeing of citizens.

Government workers serve America by tending its accepted systems and rules. We hire them to serve specific legislated mandates rather than personal partisan interests. They are the glue that makes the system a system, and the ballast that keeps the ship upright through political storms.

Past efforts to undermine the political independence of the federal workforce have been stopped by the courts. Efforts to undermine the civil service rules and the Hatch Act, for example, have been mostly stymied. Whether those protections will continue to be honored by a new Supreme Court increasingly influenced by libertarian interests is an important and open question. What I am sure of is that further politicizing the federal bureaucracy will reduce its professionalism and undermine both its commitment and capacity to serve the public interest.