Book Review — What Washington Gets Wrong: The Unelected Officials Who Actually Run the Government and Their Misconceptions about the American People

What Washington Gets Wrong by Jennifer Bachner

What Washington Gets Wrong: The Unelected Officials Who Actually Run the Government and Their Misconceptions about the American People by Jennifer Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg is a detailed study of how the federal bureaucracy views the public it serves. Jennifer Bachner, Ph.D., is Director of the Master of Science in Government Analytics and Certificate in Government Analytics at Johns Hopkins University. Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies in Washington, D.C.

It has been quite a while since I read and reviewed an American domestic political science book. Most tend to get hung up on partisan issues or single issues that are usually solved or worked out while the book is still fresh. One part of our government, however, is nearly omnipresent in actions and nearly invisible to the public at large. This part of government is unelected but harnesses a great deal of power. The bureaucracy, federal agencies, that handles so much of today’s administering of laws is somewhat a new political animal. It started, for the most part, in nineteenth century Europe. As people flocked to cities the government needed more information. How many people live in this area? How many are of draftable age? What public services are available and are they enough. The bureaucracy was also helpful in locating the cause of the 1854 cholera outbreak in England. It became part of the information system for the government as well as providing necessary services.

Federal bureaucracy in the United States has a long history too. Andrew Jackson made famous the spoils system. The Pendleton Act of 1883 created a civil service based on merit rather than political favors. The 1939 Hatch Act prevented government employees from becoming involved in politics. A great deal of effort was used to separate the bureaucracy from the political system. This isolation, however, presented its own unintended problems.

Congress found itself in a bind as government grew and services increased. This created two problems. The first was information gathering. If a congressman wanted information on milk production, milk in school lunches, or diet in general, a lobbyist from the dairy industry would be more than happy to supply the (biased) information. Second, was how to actually implement laws. The Clean Air Act, for example, called for clean air. It never said what qualified as clean air or how to go about getting to the clean air. That was a job for experts. The EPA is a bureaucracy with experts in getting those answers and implementing them. Congress said we made a law requiring clean air. Congress told the EPA to implement the law. The EPA takes charge and executes it within the confines of the law. It is like when your roof leaks. You call a roofer and tell them to fix the leak. You don’t tell them how, but you do define the expected result. Congress essentially does the same thing. The system seems sound enough. But there can be problems. In 2001 the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress. Later when asked why certain provisions were approved Congressmen admitted not reading the act but voting for it anyway. A huge amount of power was given over to a government bureaucracy with very little thought.

Congress does have some power over these agencies. It does control the funding and can hold hearings. Sometimes the hearings actually make the news. The failures of FEMA in handling Katrina and the military’s failure at Abu Ghraib prison are examples of Congress using its power to limit or direct bureaucracies. It is a difficult task to provide oversight. There are fifteen executive departments with over five hundred agencies, bureaus, and authorities. Add to this are the semi-governmental entities like AMTRAK, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and a host of others.

Surprisingly, many agencies have armed enforcement. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has one hundred thirty-four armed agents. Certainly not what one expects from a weather agency. To further complicate matters Reagan and Clinton worked to politicize the agencies for their own wants through the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Here is a system created with the best intentions. It is an implementation system designed to carry out the will of the people, through their elected representatives. Why is there such a deep chasm between what the people want and what is implemented or enforced? The news regularly runs stories of agencies run amuck like a girl’s “illegal” lemonade stand being raided, a lost person being fined for trespassing on government land, or a boat captain whistling at whales (Yes, NOAA again). If agencies were less isolated or located outside of the beltway would things be different? If the Department of Education was located in Cleveland or Detroit would employees think those school systems are good enough for their children as opposed to the Maryland and Virginia system that most use now?

Bauchner and Ginsberg give a detailed accounting of just how this unelected collection of agencies actually governs our day to day lives. A detailed survey was sent to various government officials with a series of questions to help determine what the government actually thinks about the population. The answers are surprising as well as some of the research. Information not only about the government but also the people are brought up. I did not expect the high school graduation rate was as low as 85%. I did some research of my own and found out 14% of the US population is illiterate and 21% read below a 5th-grade level. Are we simply getting the government we deserve? Does the government see this same information and assume Americans can’t understand what they are doing? Bauchner and Ginsberg give the results of their findings in detail complete with graphs and charts reflecting their research. For those interested in American government, this book is essential. This goes well beyond the surface of partisan politics and shows just what those in government think of the American public, how they hold power over all of us, and how they can better serve the needs of the public. Five stars for detailed research and the subject matter covered.


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