Law Passes, Clinton Fails

December 1, 1999

Alexander Hamilton would have had plenty to say about the future of the National Nuclear Stewardship Administration, which came to life by law for a brief moment last month before President Clinton announced he would never implement it. Hamilton believed that a government ill-executed, no matter what it might be in theory, must be a bad government in practice. Separated powers, and checks and balances, might be good for preventing tyranny, but once the laws were passed, Hamilton and the rest of the Founding Fathers fully expected them to be faithfully executed.

President Clinton earned a special place in the history of presidential-congressional squabbling last month when he signed the 2000 Defense authorization bill and then promptly voided the legislative charter of the National Nuclear Security Administration contained therein. Congress created the NNSA after last summer’s tempestuous hearings on espionage at the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories. The hearings featured the testimony of the 32 Senators involved in overseeing the troubled Energy Department. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson made quite clear that he opposed the quasi-independence of the new agency and vowed to win a presidential veto of any bill that contained the offensive provisions. In the end, Clinton decided to sign the bill and ignore the law.

He did so by merely directing the Energy Secretary to perform the job of undersecretary for nuclear security, the intended head of the NNSA. Some might argue that the President is actually implementing the law. It all depends upon how one defines the word “implement.” But no one can doubt what the President’s intention is. He made clear that the NNSA was a violation of all that is good and noble in public administration. He even invoked the Hoover Commission to argue that “the accountability of a Cabinet department head is not complete without the legal authority to meet the legal responsibilities for which that person is accountable.” Never mind that Vice President Al Gore’s reinventing government campaign was designed to undo most of what the Hoover Commission created by way of rules and procedures.

For its part, Congress was shocked at the President’s action. The Senate held a hearing filled with outrage, but could only threaten to cut Richardson’s travel budget—an empty threat for a Secretary who hardly can travel when he is holding down two jobs. Summoned to defend his President’s decision, Richardson wisely retreated, pledging to appoint an undersecretary for nuclear security.

The whole incident would be laughable if it were not such a sad commentary on the current state of governance. Hamilton would likely have argued that Congress was wrong to pass an administrative reform that was so hotly opposed by the chief executive. He might also have endorsed Clinton’s defense of presidential authority.

Hamilton would have taken the President to task for failing to monitor the department as concerns about lax security mounted. Perhaps it was only reasonable that Congress would step in to do his job.

Hamilton undoubtedly would have urged Clinton to demonstrate similar resolve. If the NNSA was such bad policy, the President should have vetoed the entire bill. Congress was right to be infuriated by Clinton’s maneuver.

The problem is that neither Congress nor Clinton has figured out quite what to do about the growing list of government vulnerabilities. They lurch from crisis to crisis—deposing revenue agents, investigating nuclear scientists—with nary a clue that accountability is collapsing all across government. It’s not that the NNSA will not do some good, nor that last year’s IRS reforms are a waste. It’s just that the reforms miss the bigger problem.

Simply stated, the federal government is no longer able to hold anyone accountable. Agencies inflate employees’ annual performance appraisals to the point where half are rated outstanding; managers promote their subordinates virtually at will; political appointees come and go with the wind, leaving vacancies and acting officers in ever-lengthening chains of command. Then, lo and behold, Congress discovers that revenue agents have gone bad or that spies may have infiltrated Los Alamos.

Congress is partially to blame, of course. The House and Senate routinely add new units to the government to satisfy this special interest or that, and rarely conduct the kind of oversight that might reveal a problem in time to fix it. If Senators want to help Richardson, they should cut the number of layers in his department—the White House has persistently refused to do so. And if they want to scare him, they should concentrate oversight of his department in one committee and a handful of Senators who have the time and focus to pursue the truth.

Clinton bears the greater burden in the crisis of accountability, however. It was the President, not Congress, who should have held someone in that vast department accountable. And it was Clinton who should have demanded tighter security. That he did neither speaks volumes to his boredom with the details of administration.That would have offended Hamilton most of all. The job of chief executive does not end when one loses interest. It is a full-time job in a government well executed.