Sunday, January 25, 2009

Limits to trust in the executive

W. Wilkinson points to some mostly good things Obama's done so far* to limit executive power. And, on the one hand, provided he sticks by these commitments, that's great for the next 4 or 8 years.

But on the other hand, the very fact that a President can change these norms simply by issuing an executive order is deeply disturbing. The next President can override these orders with different ones. This can be read as evidence that elections matter — contra the Greens and assorted other cynics who say there's no meaningful difference between the candidates of the two parties — but elections shouldn't matter in this particular way. It just shouldn't be possible for the President to run the executive in a way that's completely unanswerable to the public's questioning, to say nothing of the law.

You can't hand the fox the keys to the henhouse and then simply trust in the fox's integrity. Even if you manage to find the one vegetarian fox in the world, you would not call "finding vegetarian foxes" a long-term strategy for henhouse protection.

Which is why Congress has to play a vigorous role in limiting executive power. Which, in turn, is why it was so shameful for Obama to capitulate on giving Verizon and AT&T immunity for their FISA lawbreaking, and why it's so necessary for Pelosi and Reid to open vigorous investigations into the Bush administration's past behavior.

Sadly, I don't think the Democrats are up to it. It's still early days for the newly elected Congress, but I suspect that ongoing crises of various kinds will serve as ample excuse not to pursue "divisive" investigations.

*Although I don't see the point of freezing the salaries of top White House aides, except as a temporary and symbolic gesture. In a multi-trillion dollar Federal government budget, saving a few millions of dollars in salaries at the top, and thereby risking not attracting the best of the best, is penny wise and pound foolish. Certain super-high-prestige positions will attract top caliber people simply by virtue of the job title. But as you go further down the ladder, you get positions where the title's less impressive, but it's still important to attract people whose other options would include high-paying and high-prestige positions in the private sector. It's all fine and well to say that public servants should be public-spirited, but when choosing their careers, real people balance financial compensation, personal satisfaction, and the public interest. For some skill sets, private-sector work pays more than public-sector work and simultaneously offers less frustration, more autonomy, and still some sense of serving the public interest (albeit via market mechanisms). Do you want to lose people with those skill sets? What marginal reduction in the efficiency of the executive branch will you accept in order to maintain the fiction that White House employees are motivated by public-spiritedness and nothing else? If you'll accept 0.1%, then you've just wasted a couple billion dollars. An expensive fiction.

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