The Aristobureaucrats

A dirty joke inside the government.

When disaster strikes, ordinary people blame the government. And people in government blame … the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy blinded government officials to al-Qaida plots before 9/11 and now it is being blamed for the botched response to Hurricane Katrina. “Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people,” said President Bush earlier this week. Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, told CBS’s The Early Show, “Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area.”

But who is responsible for the bureaucracy that failed? The CEO President came in with a promise to cut red tape and streamline government. His White House would be crisp, efficient, and everyone would be home by dinnertime. No more late-night bull sessions. It was a valiant effort, but most of Washington—the pundits, lobbyists, and congressional aides who see administrations come and go—knew that the team from Austin would face the same friction as all administrations, Democratic and Republican, that come in with such rhetoric.

But the Bush team got a shot their recent predecessors didn’t: the Department of Homeland Security. They built an enormous agency from scratch, vowing to create the kind of shiny, swiftly clicking apparatus they envisioned for the government as a whole. Judging by the DHS response to Katrina, we can breathe a sigh of relief that they didn’t expand their bureaucracy vendetta further.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card presided over the creation of the DHS. He cooked up the second-largest department in the history of government in secret. “I knew that if word leaked out, the bureaucracies would defend themselves,” he told me in an interview shortly after Bush announced the department’s formation in June 2002. Card had presented the president with an inch-and-a-half-thick binder of options in the cabin of Air Force One just days before. One option the president picked was to integrate FEMA into the new department. Another option Bush might now wish he’d checked off was to bring in the National Guard, too.

Card described the process of creation with delight: He leaned off the sofa and grinned as he spoke, giddy at having been able to pedal so quickly past the usual government roadblocks. The defenders of the bureaucracy were so virulent, he had to put together a small team and they took their blueprints and drafting tools into the secure bunker underneath the White House. He had tried meeting with the heads of the government agencies but made no progress. “It turned into: ’My bureaucracy is the best bureaucracy in government,’ ” Card said in another interview last year. “And all we need is more money and another would say my bureaucracy is the best bureaucracy and it has been around for 100 years and we don’t even need money and well, if you’re going to pass out money my bureaucracy could do a great job.”

Tom Ridge, the first director of Homeland Security, attended those early meetings, Card remembered, “and he said: ‘what are the solutions.’ And almost without exception, to an agency, the solution was them. Just give us more money. I am the solution. Give us more money. No one said: I want to be part of the solution and abolish me.”

Because Card saw the status quo plus more money as no solution, he put together the task force with Ridge and OMB director Mitch Daniels to find another way. “A smart group of people were put together [and] were told not to bring any bias into meeting to look at the problem and the solution,” Card said. “It was a way to make sure that bureaucratic bias didn’t preclude a solution. Then, bingo, out popped a solution in the dark of night, and it was the only way that the solution could have been presented.”

We now know the solution has failed. In the coming months we’ll have a chance to learn just how, and in how many different ways, that bureaucracy-free, executive-authority-channeling machine sprang its wires, and whether the architects share the blame with the operators.