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.

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