In Washington, Conservatives Are Never Really 'In Power'

With the end of the Bush administration, and the beginning of the most liberal administration in American history, it is a good time to take stock of what happened over the past eight years.

Conservatives get very frustrated over the failure of Republican administrations in general to change the course of the federal government. They do not understand why an executive branch "controlled" by a Republican president continued to implement liberal policies and regulations. Examples abound over the past eight years -- from the Department of Justice's all-out enforcement of foreign language ballots, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's refusal to act against companies that engage in reverse racial discrimination on the basis of "diversity," to the discriminatory awarding of federal contracts on the basis of race that continued in every federal department from Transportation to Commerce.

However, Republicans (much less conservatives) are not really in control of the executive branch even when they occupy the White House, something that most people (especially conservatives outside of Washington) do not fully understand.

Part of the problem can be a failure of presidential leadership. After all, a president's advisors and political appointees are supposed to carry out what they perceive to be his views and direction. When a Republican president does not make it clear that he expects conservative principles to be followed throughout the executive branch, then no attempt will be made by his political appointees to change liberal policies at the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, or any other federal agency. Even when you have a conservative president, there are a number of other significant reasons why the federal government remains a champion of liberalism. These reasons are inherent in the structure of the executive branch, the employees who make up its ranks, and the occupants of the capitol, both inside and outside of government.

I came to Washington in 2001 to take a career job at the Department of Justice after spending many years in the private sector. I thought I could make a small difference in my particular corner of the executive branch, just like Jimmy Stewart's character did in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of my favorite movies. After I arrived in Washington, I developed a circle of conservative friends (both career employees and political appointees) who work in other federal departments. We all shared the same frustrations at the inability to get liberal policies changed in the government. Our experiences illustrate some of the reasons that the liberal course of the government did not change during the prior administration, and may never change.

First, most people do not understand the sheer magnitude of the executive branch. There are almost 3 million federal employees, 99 percent of whom are career civil servants over whom the president has virtually no authority. Seventeen states have fewer citizens than the federal government has bureaucrats. There are only a few thousand positions within the federal government that are subject to "noncompetitive appointment," i.e., positions that the president can fill through political patronage. Among these are 1,137 positions that can be filled by presidential appointment with Senate confirmation; 320 positions subject to presidential appointment without confirmation; and 701 positions in the Senior Executive Service (the top level of managers within the federal ranks) that can be filled by non-career appointments.

As these numbers illustrate, it is the career civil servants who pull the millions of levers of power, not the few political appointees at the top of every agency. It is very difficult for the appointees to even keep track of the policies being implemented by the career staff, much less change them.

This would not be a problem if the career ranks were really filled with nonpartisan individuals (as the New York Times unwaveringly claims) who impartially carried out the policies of the president. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. From the State Department, to the Central Intelligence Agency, to the Department of Justice, and every agency in between, career employees are overwhelmingly partisan liberals, just like in the media and academic worlds. As Richard Perle has eloquently said, when George Bush tried to pull the levers of government, he never realized that they were disconnected from the machinery and the exertion was largely futile. The bureaucracies of these agencies have their own policies and they largely ignored President Bush's directives and his political appointees, a problem President Obama will not have.