To listen to press secretaries and Congressional hearings, one might think that an epidemic had erupted in the nation’s capital – an epidemic of incompetence and absentee leadership. Practically no area of government has immunity from this disease, whether it’s at the White House, the State Department, the IRS and Treasury, or at the Department of Justice.
Let’s start with the White House, which may well be the epicenter of the disease. The administration faces at least three major scandals – Benghazi, the Department of Justice’s snooping on reporters for the AP and Fox News, and the IRS targeting of conservative groups for harassment and procedural blocks on their tax-exempt applications.
To hear Jay Carney answer questions from the media, no one at the White House knew anything about any of these issues in the executive branch they manage, at least not until they heard about it on the television news. (Presumably, this is a big compliment to CNN.)
Actually, Jay Carney doesn’t even know what the White House does and doesn’t know, depending on the day of the week. After claiming that no one at the White House knew anything at all about the IRS practices until Lois Lerner staged a self-serving question at an ABA conference to apologize ahead of the release of the Inspector General report, Carney then backtracked four separate times in as many business days.
Eventually – or perhaps more accurately, so far – Carney ended up admitting that White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler knew about the IRS abuses by mid-April at the latest, and had discussed the matter with chief of staff Neil McDonough, although neither of them thought to update their boss on the matter. Media outlets responded by creating timelines of the evolution of Carney’s explanations.
Actually, even the President seemed unclear about what he knew and when. At a press conference last week, a reporter asked him when he knew about the IRS abuses toward conservative groups. Barack Obama responded by claiming he didn’t know about the Inspector General report until May 10th – which, as CBS News’ Mark Knoller pointed out, didn’t answer the question about when Obama knew about the abuses themselves.
Also, Carney now acknowledges that Ruemmler knew about the IRS abuses and shared them with McDonough but not the President – and, it should be noted, the IRS chief counsel was briefed on the targeting practices in August 2011, while Schulman claimed no knowledge of them in March 2012 in two appearances before Congressional committees.
Chief counsels exist to brief executives on legal issues to prevent them from being blindsided, as well as to give advice on how to deal with them. A counsel who gets that kind of information and keeps it from the executive either does so to preserve plausible deniability for political reasons or because the counsel knows that the executive already has knowledge of the situation through other means.
THE BENGHAZI AFFAIR
Both State and the White House have shifted their initial arguments on Benghazi as a result of whistleblower testimony two weeks ago. Prior to hearing from career State Department employees Gregory Hicks, Eric Nordstrom, and Mark Thompson about false claims made by the administration after the terrorist attack on the consulate, the administration insisted that it had done everything possible to protect the people on the ground and tell the truth afterward.
The release of e-mails relating to the evolution of the talking points clearly showed that the FBI considered it an al-Qaeda terrorist attack, and yet terrorism all but disappeared from the final product. By last week, sources at the White House told CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson that Republicans were trying to paint them as liars, but that “it’s actually closer to us being idiots.”
…AND JUSTICE FOR SOME
Over at the Department of Justice, investigators made it their business to know who spoke with reporters at the Associated Press and when by seizing the company’s phone records. Justice also spied on Fox News’ James Rosen as part of a leak investigation in part by arguing in court that Rosen was under investigation for espionage.
And yet, when Attorney General Eric Holder testified before a House committee last week about the AP phone records scandal, he had nothing much to say except that he knew nothing of what happened – because he had recused himself from the case, apparently without ever documenting the recusal. He offered so many “I don’t knows” that the Washington Free Beacon put them all together in a YouTube video:
THE TAX MEN COMETH
Over the past week, the current and former IRS commissioners testified before House and Senate committees about how they allowed these abuses to take place and why they didn’t put a stop to them. Taking the lead from the White House, both Steve Miller and Douglas Schulman insisted that they didn’t know what was happening in the agency they both ran.
Schulman repeatedly insisted that he couldn’t be expected to know what 90,000 employees did and refused to accept responsibility for their actions; the best he’d do was to acknowledge that those actions took place “on his watch.” Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a wounded combat veteran, excoriated Schulman for his evasions, telling him that even “25-year-old buck sergeants and second lieutenants” knew that “you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility.”
Miller in particular exhibited strong symptoms of the disease. In his first appearance on Capitol Hill, Miller offered ambiguous answers when asked about the strategy to use a planted question at an ABA conference. By his third committee appearance, Miller had suddenly remembered that it was actually his idea.
So what are we to think about this competence epidemic of executive ignorance, impotence, and incompetence? The symptoms are either self-serving lies intended to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing, or genuine statements of impotence and ignorance. Either way, it demolishes the argument for bigger and more activist government.
Start with the credulous assumption that everyone is telling the truth about knowing nothing about what happened on their “watch,” as Schulman said, from the top down. David Axelrod tried to use this defense a week ago, telling MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “Part of being president is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”
That, of course, is precisely the argument conservatives make for scaling down the size of government. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been told the same about Cabinet-level positions (Attorney General Eric Holder) and sub-Cabinet positions (IRS commissioners within Treasury). If Schulman’s argument is that he can’t be expected to account for the performance of his 90,000-member organization, then the federal government at every level is too large for proper accountability and management.
Of course, if all of these executives from Barack Obama on down are fibbing about their knowledge and actions, then one can argue that the federal government hasn’t grown too large to manage. That still, however, leaves the question of accountability open.
If government can effectively deny responsibility for damage and abuses, and no one is held accountable – no one has even been disciplined at the IRS, for instance – while the rights of Americans are trampled and freedom of the press infringed, then the big-government model doesn’t work, either.
In fact, as the IRS and DOJ scandals demonstrate, it allows government to become a malicious force and eliminates recourse for citizens victimized by petty tyrants within both the bureaucracy and the political castes within it. The longer this continues without serious consequences to the malefactors, the stronger the case becomes for an end to the activist government model and downsizing the federal bureaucracy until we restore accountability, equal treatment, and competence.