Magazine | July 1, 2013, Issue

Bureaucratic Rot

A government, like a fish, decays from its guts

‘The fish rots from the head down” is a popular saying these days, mostly among people who do not fish and who, apparently, have never met a fish.

“The fish rots from the head down,” say folks on television and in agitated blog posts about the recent cascade of scandals that have beset the Obama administration. The scandals are all of a sneaky piece, too: lying, spying, cover-upping, political strong-arming. They all have been minimized by a lickspittle press that looks the other way, and at least two of them — the flagrant persecution of conservative political groups by the IRS and the EPA — manage a kind of paranoid’s trifecta: They involve powerful and unregulated government agencies acting on the implicit orders of a furiously partisan White House against a collection of citizen-activists who already think the government is out to get them.

Turns out, they’re right!

So you don’t have to be part of the totally-off-your-meds crowd to imagine a meeting in the Oval Office with all of that lefty eye-rolling and sneering at the wingnuts — Sure, audit the homophobes! Wiretap those Fox Newsies! Lie on the Sunday talk shows! — and then, probably, an eruption of evil cackles and President Obama slowly stroking a white cat, Bond-villain style.

“The fish rots from the head down” is what a lot of folks on our side are saying, hoping that an e-mail or directive will turn up in the president’s handwriting — “Need to wiretap James Rosen ASAP. Must intimidate press. Also: Tell IRS no more Tea Party! Thnx. BO” — or that some young intern kept a detailed diary — “Dear Diary, today our magnificent president unleashed a campaign against our domestic enemies! It was soooooo Game of Thrones!!!!!!”

So, to follow the currently fashionable political analogy to its conclusion, if the fish rots from the head down, the strategy is simple: Go for the head. The bureaucrats at the IRS and the Department of Justice must have received orders from somewhere, right? Why not scour the top for signs of rot? This could really work for us. We could finally get this guy!

Here’s the problem: Fish do not rot from the head down. The fish head, in fact, is mostly bone, and its two glassy eyes are often the best way to tell if it’s fresh or not. A fresh fish on the ice in the market has clear eyes, shiny and odor-free skin, and lips clamped together in a slightly confused smile. A little like certain presidents I could mention these days, in fact. A really fresh fish should look like you just woke it up.

A fish, when it rots, rots from the guts. Which is why — as any amateur or professional fisherman will tell you — pretty much the first thing you’ve got to do when you catch a fish is take a very sharp knife, slide it along the underside of the fish’s belly, make a slit about the length of the entire body, and yank out the guts in a mess of blood and maw and organ and intestine.

#page#So while Republicans watch the tick-tock of Obama’s softening popularity with glee, and while congressmen puff and posture for the 2014 midterms — in other words, while they focus on the milky-eyed head of the fish — the guts of the federal bureaucracy just get ranker. And larger. And more powerful.

The steaming and stinking guts of the federal bureaucracy — take your pick: IRS thugs, EPA investigators, DOJ lawyers — are more powerful than whoever sits at the head. Looking for some kind of actionable directive from the Oval Office is a classic Republican fever dream. Republicans think that even after 60 years of unbridled growth of the federal regulatory state it still really matters who sits in the Oval Office. They think that if they swap heads, the fish won’t rot.

That’s the problem with Republicans: They’re so . . . Republican. They read books about management and Six Sigma; they talk to CEOs and businessmen; they think that if you put the right guy in charge, good things will happen. The other side knows that’s nonsense. They know that the trick isn’t to manage the fish. The trick is to let it get huge. Let the guts expand and grow and become an unmanageable tangle. And when you’re standing on the edge of the pier with a handful of fish entrails, it’s pretty clear that’s a winning strategy, because you’re never really sure you got it all.

Barack Obama may have accelerated the Bigfoot behavior of certain federal agencies, of course. A federal bureaucracy such as the IRS or the EPA, both of which are stocked with partisan Democrats, is a lot more likely to abuse its power with a friendly partisan in the White House. But the federal reach has grown pretty much unchecked since, say, the Great Society movement of Lyndon Johnson, which began in 1964. After a brief — and, arguably, inconsequential — slowdown during the Reagan years, it picked up its usual pace. Those of us on the right who clutch desperately to past victories — the Reagan administration, the 1994 House Republican takeover — keep mistaking the head for the guts. We talk about “cuts” that aren’t cuts and make allowances for this or that new regulatory function. We add complexity to the tax code. We allow intelligence-gathering outfits to collect reams of data. And then, when the tiny agents within the complicated and overgrown innards of those departments go rogue — with audits or EPA investigations or data leaks or whatever — we treat it like it’s a political problem. Like it’s a leadership issue.

The other side never makes that mistake. Rain or shine, whichever head is on the fish, Reagan or Obama, the guts of the federal fish keep growing. More lawyers, more regulators, more auditors — more laws, more regulations, more taxes. Our side looks at the head of the fish and thinks, If that’s our head, we’re winning! Their side focuses on the powerful part that stinks. They know the truth: The head doesn’t matter. Because in the end, the head is just cat food.

Rob Long — Rob Long, Hollywood writer and producer, started his career as a screenwriter for the TV show Cheers. He is a regular writer for National Review, Newsweek International, and the Los ...

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

The Cincinnati Myth

When news broke that the Internal Revenue Service had, over the course of nearly two years, actively discriminated against conservative groups applying for tax exemption, subjecting them to intrusive questions ...
Politics & Policy

One-Party Taxmen

What if I were to tell you that the IRS tea-party-targeting scandal all started with the great 19th-century railroads? Or with the conscience of a largely inconsequential, ornately mustachioed Gilded ...
Politics & Policy

Bureaucratic Rot

‘The fish rots from the head down” is a popular saying these days, mostly among people who do not fish and who, apparently, have never met a fish. “The fish rots ...
Politics & Policy

Federalism.com

The debate over Internet sales taxes, when all distractions are stripped away, isn’t about the Internet or taxes. It is about federalism. Confusion over what federalism means explains the conservative ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Men’s Rising Earnings

Assessing the severity of economic problems often requires choosing between different sets of analyses that reach disparate conclusions. While much lip service is paid to “evidence-based policymaking,” all too often ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Epic of a Nation

From Boethius to Bonhoeffer, many authors have written their most famous books in prison. In rare individuals down the ages, the predicament of incarceration seems to have unleashed great creativity. ...
Politics & Policy

Genius for Friendship

Someone should tell the story of this odd couple, because many today would find it hard to believe. Politics often feels like an ideological blood-sport, with pundits mercilessly bludgeoning one ...
Politics & Policy

No Green Light

The Bling Ring, the latest film from Sofia Coppola, marks something of a departure for its director. After several movies that have looked at the celebrity lifestyle from the inside ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

The Thousand Years’ Twilight Victor Davis Hanson has added intriguing and refreshing historical references to the pages of NR for a number of years. As Michael Knox Beran implies at the ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The good news: The NSA doesn’t know you’re reading this. The bad news: The IRS does. ‐ The latest Republican fashion on immigration is to declare broad support for the ...
The Long View

G-Mail Inbox

GMAIL INBOX TO:melanie123987@gmail.com FROM:tyler@nsa.intercepts.contractor.gov Hi! Totally weird coincidence! You and I were in the same homeroom sophomore year! I was the quiet kid in the back? Tyler? Do you remember? Probably not. You were ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

HEELS UPON THE TILE When I consider your devoted eyes, devoid of any vice I could reject, alive with avid interest, subtly flecked, and focused on my face with slight surprise, it seems as though ...

Most Popular

Culture

Courage: The Greatest of Virtues

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Or Listener), As the reporter assigned the job of writing the article about all of Sidney Blumenthal’s friends and supporters told his ... Read More
Immigration

My American Dream

This morning, at 8 a.m., I did something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember: I became an American. I first applied for a visa in early 2011, and since then I have slowly worked my way through the system — first as a visa-holder, then as a permanent resident (green card), and, finally, as a ... Read More
U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More