Politics & Policy

Hillary’s Academy

What's the point?

In a weekend speech to College Democrats, Senator Hillary Clinton discussed her proposal for a West Point for bureaucrats. Not only is it a silly idea on its face, but the fine print contains additional embarrassment.

“I’m going to be asking a new generation to serve,” she said. “I think just like our military academies, we need to give a totally all-paid education to young men and women who will serve their country in a public-service position.”

She has introduced legislation (S. 960) to establish a United States Public Service Academy. According to the bill text, such a school is necessary because baby-boom retirements will create a shortage of trained public servants.

That point is debatable. But for the sake of argument, stipulate that the country needs more young people to study government and related fields. Senator Clinton is forgetting institutions that already offer the relevant coursework. We call them “colleges” and “universities.”

I work at such a place. Not only do I teach courses on public policy but I also help my students get internships and full-time jobs in government. And at hundreds of schools all over the country, colleagues are doing the same thing.

Senator Clinton does make one serious point. Some students forgo government work because student loan obligations prompt them to seek higher-paying jobs. But if there is a personnel problem, a better solution would consist of scholarships or other financial incentives.

Launching a new institution of higher education means huge capital expenditures, especially if it is to have a first-rate science program. And when Congress starts any new government entity, it runs the risk of creating a bureaucratic nightmare. Just think of the Department of Homeland Security.

And by the way, guess where Senator Clinton would put the new academy on the government organization chart? Yes — in the Department of Homeland Security. That’s like offering a shipbuilding course on the deck of the Titanic.

Why begin a big, risky new venture when better, cheaper alternatives are at hand? One cynical explanation is that Senator Clinton’s union patrons would not like scholarships because they sound too much like vouchers. Moreover, a new institution provides opportunities for pork and patronage.

But let’s assume idealistic motivations. Perhaps Senator Clinton really hopes that her school will truly be the equivalent of the military-service academies. Just like professional military officers, graduates of the academy would thus have a profound sense of mission and vocation.

If so, she is taking the model to preposterous lengths. The military academies forbid admission to people who are married or who have dependents. Following this template, section 7 of her bill does the same.

Think about it: Senator Clinton is proposing to discriminate against people with spouses or children. The service academies can reasonably point to the need for military discipline, but what is the rationale for applying the limitation to a civilian school? How could a champion of children and families suggest such a thing?

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I learned two lessons about legislation. First, staffers do most of the drafting, often with a tin ear for political implications. Second, lawmakers seldom read the bills, even their own. If that’s what happened here, Senator Clinton would be acting in character. She did not read the National Intelligence Estimate before voting for the Iraq war. Perhaps she’s taking to heart a line from The Simpsons movie: that voters want a leader, not a reader.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

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