The Monster That Swallowed America

May 23rd, 2013

Movies tend to repeat basic themes.  One recurring theme in the sci-fi genre is the manmade monster that ultimately overtakes its maker like Frankenstein or Hal the onboard computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Since Hollywood, for the most part, never wants an audience to go home feeling hopeless or defeated, the humans usually triumph in the end over their own frightening creations.

Still, there is always a nagging fear that we could create something so big and so powerful that we have no means of stopping it.

With recent events, one has to wonder if our own federal government is such a creation.

The federal government at the agency level is basically divided into two classes of employees.  There are the political appointees selected by the president.  These employees are deliberately hired to help put the president’s personal stamp on the internal workings of each agency.  The president can hire and fire these political appointees almost at will (the exception being those requiring Senate confirmation).  Then there are the career bureaucrats.  These are the people hired to carry out the daily workings of the government, presumably untainted by a political agenda.  Hiring these people is relatively easy.  Firing them is another story.

Many people wonder why it’s so hard to fire a bureaucrat.  The answer lies in a little often forgotten episode in American history. In the early days of our country, the president typically had a personal hand in many decisions including hiring people for government jobs. It’s interesting to read accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s administration with stories of countless people waiting in the hallways of the Executive Mansion to personally meet with Lincoln to beg for a position in his administration.

This practice continued until a fateful day in July of 1881 when a crazed disappointed office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau shot President James Garfield.  After fatally wounding the president, Guiteau shouted, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts . . . . Arthur is president now.”

This pronouncement was quite problematic for the Vice President, Chester A. Arthur, who owed his entire political career to the Stalwart political machine run ruthlessly by Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York.  Despite his own shady background, Arthur wanted no part in even the appearance of complicity in Garfield’s assassination.

As a result, Arthur did something quite shocking to both friends and foes alike.  He made a complete about face, abandoning the very system that promoted him to high office in the first place, and he supported civil service reform by signing the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, effectively making it extremely difficult for politicians to remove public employees. This began the creation of the federal bureaucracy we all know today.

Obviously, we don’t want a federal government completely comprised of political hacks.  That would make for the worst kind of government.  But what happens when the federal government is comprised of people seemingly all of one political mindset who cannot be removed?  And what if no one, not even the president, to whom these federal agencies report, seems to have any direct control over them?  What happens then?

Perhaps as time goes on, we’ll learn that many of the activities we’re currently shocked by were clearly directed by the Obama administration.  If not, we may soon realize that we may have a bigger problem—an enormous federal bureaucracy leaderless and out of control.

That realization may make even Frankenstein or Hal the computer look pretty tame.