“. . . vast bureaucracies of civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.” (Winston Churchill)
In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the danger of a military-industrial complex. This powerful public-private collaboration, he said, had the potential to exert “unwarranted influence” over America’s democratic processes. A half-century later, there are still those on the left who cling to this fear. But it seems that Eisenhower’s warning had its intended effect—and perhaps then some. In 1961 defense spending constituted 9.1 percent of the gross domestic product, and there were 2,483,000 uniformed military personnel. Today, defense spending is 3.2 percent of GDP and 1,390,000 men and women serve in the uniformed military. If this behemoth is threatening America’s democratic processes, it is not doing so very successfully.
There is, however, another interlocking public-private collaboration that is at once more insidious, more powerful, and more straightforwardly partisan: the liberal ideological complex. We do not always see this collaboration so clearly, because we tend to view each aspect of it as unique and not part of a larger picture. We look, for example, at public sector unions as a labor issue. We look at funding for Planned Parenthood through the lens of abortion policy. We look at EPA regulations and grants in terms of global warming and job destruction. And so on and so forth, down to the smallest, most narrowly tailored grant awards of the federal government.
Yet in each of these cases, the complex functions in essentially the same way. Federal funds are provided for organizations that carry out liberal policies. In turn, these groups employ like-minded staff and both the leadership and the staff of these groups contribute money, time, and services to the politicians who favor this use of federal funds. This creates a vicious circle in which campaign funds are indirectly skimmed off the top of taxpayer-funded organizations, all in the service of liberal ideology.
When progressives helped to replace the spoils system with government by so-called experts, they aimed to professionalize the government. The goal was to put policy decisions into the hands of intelligent and highly trained bureaucrats who would know the interests of Americans better than average Americans did themselves. Here is the basis for the extraordinary willfulness of progressive government, a matter that has been remarked upon frequently.
What has been less clearly observed is the effect of progressive government upon the governing class itself. Training, expertise, and administrative experience, progressives argued, would be in the service of the entire nation and would reflect the good of the whole. Progressive authors and intellectuals did not foresee, or did not care, that bureaucrats and experts would develop a set of interests distinct from the American people they served.
While there was perhaps never any such thing as objectivity in governance, the belief that there was kept executive branch actions within certain bounds and restrained partisanship and ideological predispositions. So too did the traditional idea that except for national emergencies and wars, government spending and government revenues should be kept in rough balance.
This world is gone. Over the past decades, we have seen the rise of executive branch governance in the service of the liberal ideological state. This kind of governance is marked by four characteristics: (1) a bias toward increasing the size and scope of government across every department and agency, no matter which political party controls the White House or Congress; (2) a nonmilitary executive branch workforce comprised overwhelmingly (though in different degrees in different departments) of liberal officials, who are ideologically disposed to support this growth, and who are no longer representative of the populace as a whole; (3) a broad support system of direct government funding for liberal groups that reinforces the bias toward ever larger and more intrusive government; and (4) the development of a privileged set of rules and rewards for the governing experts (including compensation levels, bonuses, guaranteed job security, defined benefit retirement systems, and a different set of standards by which to measure their own actions as opposed to those of the governed).
Reform of this system was attempted halfheartedly during the Reagan administration, based in large measure on a very detailed report published by the Heritage Foundation. But these efforts failed both because a heavily Democratic House of Representatives opposed them every step of the way and for want of courage to take the political heat that inevitably comes from such efforts.
The present moment offers a rare opportunity. Working together, the Republican-controlled Congress and the new administration have it within their power to reduce federal employment levels, to readjust federal salaries, excessive workplace protections and benefits, and to eliminate federal funding for liberal ideological groups. What follows are some concrete suggestions to guide this work.
The more radical approach would be to eliminate federal employee unions altogether. These unions, opposed by Franklin Roosevelt, George Meany, and others of consequence, were first authorized by executive order in the Kennedy administration. These unions have become deeply institutionalized and built into a web of civil service laws. As a matter of general principle, the only people who should sit across the bargaining table from union leaders are people who are putting up their own, and not taxpayers’ money. Moreover, there is at this time no demonstrable need for federal government unions when federal salaries and benefits far exceed those of the average American worker. Eliminating federal employee unions, however, would be a very heavy political lift.
A less radical, but still very significant step would be to terminate taxpayer funding for federal union representation work. For example—as unbelievable as it sounds— more than 200 federal employees of the National Treasury Employees Union are paid government salaries—many in excess of $100,000—to do union work. In a perfectly Orwellian formulation, this union work is called “official time.” The cost of this taxpayer-subsidized union work, which amounted to 573,319 hours in 2013, was $23.5 million.
Overall, it is estimated that federal government union officials each year expend more than 2.9 million hours, at a cost to taxpayers of $121 million, on “official time.” Surely these positions could be defunded. Union members could support their leaders, if they choose to do so, out of freely collected union dues.
The large federal unions—among them the National Treasury Employees Union, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the National Federation of Federal Employees—make substantial and regular political campaign contributions. These go overwhelmingly to Democrats. In the 2016 election cycle, federal union contributions totaled $16 million, more than $14 million of which went to Democratic candidates. Ninety-four percent of NTEU’s contributions in a recent election cycle went to Democrats, and the disparities were striking ($156,000 for Democratic House candidates, $1,000 for Republican House candidates). Federal unions also spent more than $10 million in declared lobbying fees to advance their agendas. By law, political contributions must be raised from voluntary contributions from union members, which is proper. However, when the salaries of union officials are provided by taxpayers—as well as office space, travel reimbursement, and other perks—this frees up a considerable source of money that would otherwise be required to support these union officials.
The very same process is at work with Planned Parenthood. Like many liberal not-for-profit groups, Planned Parenthood provides a variety of services. Chief among them of course is abortions: Planned Parenthood in 2013 performed 327,000 abortions, roughly one-third of all abortions performed in America. Planned Parenthood argues that this accounts for a very small share of its serv-ices, by equating office visits, the provision of contraceptives, and other simple procedures with abortions. However, if one were to impute a reasonable cost to these procedures, it would amount to somewhere between a quarter and half of Planned Parenthood’s annual budget. Planned Parenthood relies heavily on accounting legerdemain—vastly overstating the value of its contraception and other services—to suggest that federal dollars do not in any way support abortion.
Planned Parenthood receives roughly $528 million from Medicaid reimbursements and grants from numerous federal departments and agencies, including those as far afield as Justice, Agriculture, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Planned Parenthood also receives grants as a “navigator” to enroll people in Obama-care. In all, Planned Parenthood received a total of 268 separate federal grants from the government in 2013-14. These federal dollars free up funds that Planned Parenthood uses to provide abortions.
In the 2016 election cycle, Planned Parenthood’s national PAC contributed $1,328,000 to candidates and campaign funds, spent more than $2 million in declared lobbying activities in 2015-16, and more than $15 million in the broad category of electioneering communications. In the 2012 election cycle, 99 percent of Planned Parenthood’s political contributions went to Democratic candidates; in 2014, 100 percent; and in 2016, 99 percent. Planned Parenthood officials endorse these politicians, they speak on their behalf, and they organize for them. They may do so out of conviction, but they also know that continued federal government funding is vital to operating Planned Parenthood at anywhere near its current level of activity.
If abortions are really as important as their defenders argue, these defenders can support them with their own money. Republicans have long been fearful of being charged with “shutting down the federal government” if they stand firm on defunding individual items in the federal budget. With control of Congress and the White House, however, the tables can be turned; it would be defenders of Planned Parenthood who would have to threaten to shut down the government to preserve its funding.
This same dynamic operates across almost all federal government agencies. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Environmental Protection Agency, which has raised revolving door employment and grant-giving to an art form. Much of this was detailed in a 2014 report by Senate Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee, entitled “The Chain of Environmental Command.”
As but one of dozens of examples, consider the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Like the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, the NRDC receives grants from the federal government both directly and indirectly. In addition, it participates in a process referred to as “sue and settle.” It brings lawsuits against the EPA on issues where EPA officials actually have no objection to being sued. EPA and NRDC officials then “settle” these suits, sometimes almost immediately and together, in the form of “consent decrees,” write new regulations ostensibly to settle the lawsuits. On many occasions, the EPA also pays the legal fees of the NRDC and similar groups as part of its settlement.
Through its parallel organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, the NRDC in turn lobbies the federal government and supports political candidates. In its first-ever presidential endorsement, the NRDC Action Fund endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in the 2016 cycle. Its officers also make personal contributions to candidates, the overwhelming majority of course to Democratic candidates.
This process operates in virtually every cabinet department and agency. Every single cabinet department from Agriculture to Labor to HHS to Justice to Treasury to State funds numerous grant programs that disproportionately benefit left-leaning not-for-profit groups whose membership in turn reliably funds the left-leaning politicians and policymakers who support their goals.
Consider a relatively small organization called Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) with headquarters in Washington and chapters in large cities across America. Like many left-leaning grant recipients, some of what AAAJ does is unobjectionable. It provides counsel on voter registration and voter rights. But this is done in the service of advancing the group’s notion of justice. And what is the “justice” for which AAAJ lobbies? These days it includes opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general in the Trump administration, condemning Trump’s naming of Steve Bannon as a top aide, preserving affirmative action for college admissions, opposing measures to require proof of citizenship to vote, and supporting President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, among a litany of standard left-leaning policy positions.
AAAJ raises funds for its work from both the private and public sectors, the latter from state, local, and federal grants. AAAJ officials and board members in turn are reliable supporters of Democratic candidates for president, the Senate and the House. Surely private sector donors could fully support the work of AAAJ, if they choose to do so. Is there really any legitimate reason taxpayers should subsidize, even indirectly, AAAJ’s narrow and highly ideological notions of justice?
None of this is meant to suggest that this organization is unique or in any way merits special concern. It is not. The point is exactly opposite: It is no different from scores of other such organizations and demonstrates the ubiquity of government funding for such groups.
A particularly egregious practice in recent years is the Department of Justice’s bank settlement process, in which banks are effectively coerced to make payments to individuals arguably harmed by lending practices. DOJ typically offers a portion of settlement funds as grants to reliably left-leaning community organizations. The House recently passed legislation to bar funds being allocated in such a way, on the grounds that this process circumvents the sole right of Congress to provide funds expended by the executive branch. One can hope that the House will pass this legislation again next year and that the Senate will do the same.
As older readers might recall, circumventing Congress was an important part of the case against Oliver North’s use of unappropriated monies to fund the Nicaraguan contras. And it was the heart of the concern expressed by Senator Robert Byrd when the Bush 41 administration proposed that foreign funds to pay for the Gulf war go directly to the Pentagon in the form of “gifts.” These funds, Byrd argued successfully, needed to go to the Treasury, where they would be subject to subsequent congressional appropriation.
Some federal grants are directed by Congress, but most are not. The latter are provided at the discretion of officials in executive branch departments and agencies. As such, these can be reviewed by the incoming administration and decisions to fund or defund them can be made on the merits. Decisions that encounter pushback—and one can count on this—should require interested members of Congress to protect each grant with a specific line item requirement in authorization or appropriation bills. Protecting these groups’ grants will not be so easy in an environment in which earmarks remain out of favor.
Let’s be clear here. We are not talking about providing tax breaks to organizations in the form of an IRS designation as a tax-exempt charity. We are talking about groups being given real taxpayer dollars. Many of these liberal ideological groups can afford to maintain themselves without government support. Those that cannot have no reason to be in business.
Nothing comparable occurs on the political right. Taxpayer protection groups, pro-free-speech groups, judicial interest groups, think tanks, and other right-leaning advocacy groups raise their funds from individuals and corporations in the private sector, as is proper. When the Obama IRS went after conservative groups it did not go after conservative advocacy groups receiving direct taxpayer funds, because there are none. It could target conservative groups only indirectly, by making it more difficult for them to raise nongovernmental funds.
In terms of Eisenhower’s warning, it is true that the total dollar value of direct funding for liberal groups does not approach the roughly $100 billion of the Pentagon’s annual procurement budget. But then again these groups are not providing for the common defense; they are providing for higher government salaries and benefits, for abortions, for additional government regulations and restrictions, and for many narrow partisan, ideological purposes lumped under the murky rubric of social justice.
The federal government should take its finger off the scales and stop paying these groups to advocate for their positions and in turn contribute to their champions. Let’s level the playing field, have open and honest policy debates, and remove the latest incarnation of “unwarranted influence.”
Jeff Bergner served in the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. His most recent book is Against Modern Humanism.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard