The Federal Octopus

by Victor Davis Hanson
Federal agencies now exist not for the public good but for their employees’ benefit and Obama’s agenda.

When IRS Commissioner John Koskinen arrogantly told Congress that he had no apologies for an agency that has targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny, had a top-ranking bureaucrat take the Fifth Amendment, and destroyed its own correspondence, he meant it. Nor did Lisa Jackson, the former head of the EPA, offer any apologies for concocting a fake persona, replete with false e-mail identity (“Richard Windsor”), to hide her own communications. Kathleen Sebelius was likewise unapologetic after presiding over the ruined initial implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Nor did she pay any consequence for campaigning for Democratic candidates while a cabinet secretary, in violation of the Hatch Act.

Government always grows, sometimes even more rapidly under Republican than under Democratic presidents. But under President Obama we are seeing something a little different — the creation of a partisan, semi-autonomous government that seems to exist for the benefit of its employees and the larger ideological agenda of the present administration.

The common theme of many of the Obama scandals is that expansion of government is a good thing (e.g., more employed constituents, more redistributive regulations on individuals, higher taxes to pay for it all), that government employees should be partisans of those politicians who favor more government, and that what a government agency was constituted to do is not necessarily what it will do.

Take the Veterans Affairs scandal. Delays in providing care were covered up by false record keeping. This criminal fraud contributed to the death of several veterans. The falsification of records also meant both that the scandal would not quickly come to light and that veterans would continue not to receive needed care. No matter: 65 percent of VA executives nevertheless received merit bonuses, among them those at the dysfunctional Phoenix VA Health Care System, where the largest number of veterans died. Overall, 80 percent of VA executives received very high performance rankings for overseeing a scandal-plagued agency. An outsider might conclude that the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy existed not so much for its client veterans as for the fossilized bureaucracy that so poorly runs the hospitals.

That would not be an unreasonable deduction. The General Services Administration, which provides supplies, office space, and so on for federal agencies, supposedly to ensure that they conduct operations efficiently, is likewise out of control. In 2012, videos emerged of lavish GSA junkets to Las Vegas and bizarre government-funded amateur skits and movies. It appeared that federal employees were not only exempt from the law, but sneering about their immunity from accountability.

Under Obama, bureaucracies also freelance far beyond their missions to further the president’s multicultural agenda. One would think that NASA, our agency for exploration of outer space, should have nothing to do with the president’s plans for Muslim outreach, which he thought was going to end the war on terror, remake the Middle East, and ease global tensions. But in 2010, NASA administrator Charles Bolden informed us that, “perhaps foremost, [Obama] wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and engineering — science, math and engineering.” Would that Bolden had ignored that “foremost” distortion of his agency and instead sought to wean the United States off its dependence on Russian rocketry for manned entry into space, in the present age of failed reset with Russia.

In pre-Obama times, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had a necessary and narrowly defined mission: to protect individual achievement from improper infringement. But under Obama it too is now not a disinterested government agency but an arm of the White House, which can be enlisted in the furtherance of a larger social agenda. Most recently it waded into the controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins by rescinding the football franchise’s trademark rights to its name — on the basis, apparently, that the president finds that name hurtful to Native Americans. There is no evident feeling among the general public that the team should drop its name, but it has become a cause célèbre among progressives, and thus apparently any government agency must now detour to do what it can to help. Message: We are watching you for incorrect behavior and will seek to destroy any that we deem illiberal.

Sometimes contemporary government bureaucracies are even more blatantly enlisted in the progressive cause of seeing liberal Democrats elected. The Internal Revenue Service has enormous carrot-and-stick power in picking and choosing who needs a tax audit, or which group deserves tax-exempt status. Under Lois Lerner, the IRS’s tax-exemption division targeted conservative groups to defang them before the 2012 election — and then attempted to cover up that perversion of the agency. Lerner herself pled the Fifth Amendment, and now we learn that much of her key e-mail correspondence mysteriously disappeared from her computer. E-mail records from six other IRS officials of interest likewise vanished. The IRS also improperly handed over tax files of particular groups to the FBI for investigation. It is no exaggeration to state that the IRS has now surrendered its reputation as an impartial agency and lost the public trust. It has degenerated into an extension of the White House.

The Border Patrol likewise has metamorphosed into an agency entirely unrecognizable from what it was just six years ago. It has recalibrated how it counts the number of deportees, so that it can posture that it has sent back far more foreign nationals than it actually has. More recently, the children’s crusade from Central America to our southern border was prompted by rumors that the Obama administration would not enforce federal immigration laws and would grant amnesties to those who successfully crossed into the United States.

The result has not just been tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and teens flooding into America, but also the surreal scenario of foreign nationals approaching Border Patrol agents not in fear, but in hopes of being captured. Because of an administration agenda of promoting open borders and issuing executive-order amnesties, the Border Patrol now finds itself a veritable social-welfare agency welcoming thousands illegally into the U.S. In some sense, there is no Border Patrol any more; it disappeared as a law-enforcement agency when immigration law itself ended.

Then there are federal agencies that simply can no longer be assumed to serve the public trust, and insidiously recalibrate the way they do business in hopes of advancing the Obama agenda.

No one has any idea to what degree the Affordable Care Act is working, largely because we do not receive data about how many have paid or are paying their premiums, or how many people are simply transfers into the system from other state and federal health plans. We still do not know how many lost their insurance because of Obamacare, or what are the actual costs for those forced into new plans. Data about enrollees are now hopelessly politicized, in the sense that federal employees know that the more they report new signees into the system and the less they disclose about the circumstances of such enrollees, the better off will be their own careers.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis altered its methodology so that private enterprise’s research-and-development expenses are counted as proof of investment growth. The result was a hoped-for higher rate of GDP growth to report to the public. In the same vein, before the 2012 election, the Census Bureau massaged survey results so that the Labor Department could underreport unemployment statistics. The department also changed its way of reporting unemployment — in a way that we could not have imagined before Obama. Those out of work for more 52 weeks were no longer “unemployed” but reclassified as permanently out of the workforce altogether. The EPA has gone after coal plants and is eying controlling water use on private property. The catalyst is not so much the agency’s perception of the public interest, but a dictate from the administration to enact a particular ideological agenda that has no support in Congress or among the public

Add up these various alphabet-soup pathologies — well apart from the NSA, AP, and Benghazi debacles. Government agencies are now eager to venture into areas well beyond their mandates. They will use any means necessary to further the careers of their executives, massage data to enhance the administration’s agenda, or simply abdicate their responsibility to enforce the law at all if it is found to be politically incorrect.

In other words, we are witnessing a new federal government that is a sort of rogue organism that exists for its own enhancement and is willing to do anything necessary to help those who help it.

This is not America. It is like most failed states abroad, which also are not America.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.