Lopez: Who is this Nicholas Bader fella, and what’s the civics lesson he provides?
Geraghty: Nicholas Bader started out as a crusader in the style of Pat Toomey, Tom Coburn, Jeff Flake, and all of the other passionately anti-pork guys in Congress. He was going to be one of our heroes, or at least the nemesis to my ultimate bureaucrat character, Agency Administrative Director Adam Humphrey. I showed an early draft to one of my more apolitical friends, and she asked, “Why is this guy such a nut job?” That was a useful indicator of how my sense of “normal” is. And then I kind of embraced the idea of Bader being a bit obsessed with this — he’s the Captain Ahab, the Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard, the Wile E. Coyote who has a clear goal of eliminating funding for the agency and is relentless in pursuit of it.
One of the later chapters takes place during the era of the Tom DeLay–Jack Abramoff scandal, and Bader’s a useful contrast to most of the other congressional Republicans of those years, who had largely given up on the fight to shrink government. One of the really liberating aspects of the book was tearing into past Republicans who became way too comfortable with steadily expanding budgets and started focusing on just unbelievably inane crap like which staffer was getting hired for what lobbying gig on K Street.
Lopez: How is the “fight of the Left vs. the Right” the “undercard fight”?
Geraghty: The bureaucracy in Washington is permanent; the folks who work within the Cabinet departments and agencies are going to be spending their careers there — two to four decades, in a lot of cases. Presidents, Cabinet secretaries, agency directors — they’re staying eight years at most, and usually significantly less. You can wait out a lot of reforms and proposals just by dragging your feet. Republicans want to shrink government and for it to do less; Democrats want to grow government, but they also want it to do more — provide everyone with health care, provide everyone with retirement security, provide everyone with education, and so on. The permanent bureaucracy doesn’t like the Republicans for obvious reasons, but they’re not all that eager to take on all those responsibilities that the Democrats envision — or at least they’re not going to be any more efficient, reliable, or responsive in those new duties than they were in the old duties.
So in some ways, the fights in Washington in the past few decades have represented the permanent bureaucracy vs. everyone else. The VA scandal is probably the most vivid, and appalling, recent example of this.
Lopez: Still, isn’t this very much the typical conservative “the government is too big” case? Is there a language shift at the very least to put it in language that might let liberals get onboard more comfortably?
Geraghty: One aspect that I wanted to emphasize in the book is that there are a lot of good people who go to work for the federal government. The people who enter those jobs usually have some idealistic desire to help others and make the country a better place. They’re not doing it to get rich, although the pay is pretty good, the benefits are better, and the job security is pretty spectacular compared with the private sector. But they enter and usually find that their workplaces are nothing like what they expected — resistant to change and new ideas, extremely comfortable with the status quo, valuing hierarchy and time served over all else. There’s a culture of complacency, and they react to it in one of three ways. The first option is to leave — the third year is usually when young federal workers decide they’ve had it and can’t stand it anymore. The second option is to stay but grumble about it. There are a lot of online discussion boards where you can find frustrated federal workers fuming about their paperwork, complicated purchasing process, inefficiencies, outdated technology, endless meetings, waiting for approval from superiors, and so on. The third option is to adapt and get with the program — they figure out what it takes to rise within such a dysfunctional organization and get assimilated into the collective, you could say.