Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lanny Davis, Watchdog Committees and Bureaucrats

Lanny Davis, former Clinton White House counsel and lone democrat on the privacy oversight committee, resigned this week. He faulted no one, saying only that Congress had made an error by putting the committee into the White House, allowing the committee to be co-opted by White House staff.

Listening to Mr. Davis was deja vu. I reminisced over my own oversight committee experiences for which legislators had good intentions, but officials cleverly subverted them. I learned two things. Bureaucrats are insidious sabotagers of watchdog committees, and secondly, resigning is an act of integrity.

My first experience was being appointed to the NC Commission on Mental Health, Developmental Disorders, and Substance Abuse Disorders. Ostensibly, this citizens’ oversight committee signs off on all the laws for those disabilities.

As a college professor, I had a long experience of faking out students in to believing they were a part of university governance. Often, students did not recognize they were being had, or if they did, they did not care because everything looked good on a resume.

Years of such experiences, made it easy to spot the fakery on citizen’ oversight/watchdog committees. In the case of the Commission, the state officials would come in, give us their dog and pony show, apologize for getting the material to us too late to study it, then ask us to rubber stamp what they had already done. We did. Then, my political party lost an election, and I was replaced.

Through that experience I learned to never underestimate bureaucrats. They may not get much done, but they are the masters of faking it and of keeping their jobs. I soon became aware of what presidents learn and that is, no matter what they want to do, the bureaucrats can keep it from happening.

Then, I was appointed to another committee. This committee’s mandate was to have citizen’s input in to and oversight over the spending of money that had been block granted back to the states from Washington. Again, legislators had good intentions. This committee was half made up of bureau chiefs and half citizen stakeholders, the disabled themselves and their advocacy groups.

Now I was to learn a new lesson. Bureaucrats hate oversight committees. So, no matter whether they agree or disagree, they scratch each other’s backs. This time, it did not take the stake holders long to see they were being had and one by one, they would move back to their own more effective advocacy groups.

Once again, the bureaucrats came in with their dog and pony show, apologize for getting the material to us at the last minute, and ask us to sign off on it. Finally, as the chair, I went to the top officials, who with a wink and a nod, informed me that the director actually believed the money was his personal money.

I then turned to the officials in Washington. Block Grants are to be locally controlled, so they had little authority. But, we hatched a scheme in which they would visit and in front of the stakeholders, they would make it clear what was the intent of the Congress. First, of all, I had to get the state officials to agree to their visit.

To my shock, the state officials agreed with enthusiasm. Two days later, I received the following telephone call. “Oh, Dr. Clark, we just discovered that your term of office has expired” (a move never enforced before). Surprise, surprise, the president elect cancelled the government visit. This time I resigned.

What I learned is, no matter what the legislators want to accomplish with civilian oversight committees, the entrenched bureaucrats are too clever to let it happen.

My second learning is that many watchdog committee members are political pay backs. They don’t have a clue what is going on and could care less. They enjoy the status and the meals. We had one dear lady on one local committee who for 20 years, loved to be the one who said “I move we accept the proposal.” Didn’t seem to ever matter what.

Bottom line, I wrote this to get it off my chest. I can say as a Conservative, I believe in citizen watchdogs, but no one should underestimate the ingenuity of a bureaucrat.