The Bloat That Hurts Our Spies

October 5, 2004

The congressional debate over intelligence reform continues to focus almost exclusively on arming the new national intelligence directorate with enough power to force cooperation among the government’s 15 intelligence agencies. But even a nuclear weapon will not suffice unless Congress and the president find some way to flatten the bloated hierarchies the new agency will oversee and streamline the presidential appointments process that will fill its top jobs.

The intelligence community is only the latest symbol of the federal government’s hopelessly dysfunctional hierarchy. Between 1961 and 2004 the federal government added 41 new executive titles, including tongue twisters such as deputy associate deputy secretary, principal associate deputy undersecretary, deputy assistant secretary, deputy associate executive administrator, and assistant chief of staff to the assistant administrator.

Once created, the layers spread like kudzu. Between 1961 and 2004, the number of senior title-holders swelled from 450 to almost 2,600. Whereas President John F. Kennedy appointed just 10 Cabinet secretaries, six deputy secretaries, 15 undersecretaries and 87 assistant secretaries, President Bush appointed 14 secretaries, 23 deputy secretaries, 43 undersecretaries and 257 assistant secretaries. That was before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security brought another secretary, deputy secretary, five undersecretaries and two dozen assistant secretaries.

The intelligence community has added its own twists to the thickening. The FBI actually created a new layer of executive assistant directors after Sept. 11, 2001, and increased the number of senior title-holders by half. Just across the Potomac, the CIA placed a new deputy director for community management on a “who’s on first” organization chart that only Abbott and Costello could love. At last count, it was led by a director, two deputy directors, two executive directors and at least seven other officials who are called directors.

The bloat is not the only obstacle to effectiveness. The current appointments process virtually ensures that the new intelligence agency will wait months, if not years, to fill its top jobs.

The process clearly failed the country on Sept. 11. Two months before the terrorist attacks, just a third of the 166 Senate-confirmed jobs through which the war on terrorism would be led were filled. Two months after Sept. 11, the number had barely crossed the halfway mark. The secretaries and deputy secretaries were in place, but the rest of the hierarchy was pockmarked with vacancies. The agencies were not so much headless as neckless.

The problems were hardly restricted to the war on terrorism. Although the Bush White House made more nominations in its first six months than any administration in history, it had more nominations to make in the first place. By the time its Cabinet and sub-Cabinet were finally in place, the average post had remained vacant for roughly 8 1/2 months.

The delays come at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, where candidates are considered innocent until nominated. Nominees still have to list every foreign trip they have taken over the past 15 years, for example, give the birth dates and birthplaces of their parents and in-laws, and provide the name and phone number of a classmate from every school they attended since turning 18, including high school.

The quickest way to address the bureaucratic bloat is to give the next president authority to present reorganization plans on the same “fast track” that governs permanent normal trade status or the up-or-down rules that applied to the military base closings of the past. The authority could be restricted to administrative flattening, or expanded somewhat to include a more radical reshuffling of the intelligence community.

At the same time, Congress could cut two to three months off the current appointment process by passing the Presidential Appointments Improvement Act, which has been held up by jurisdictional disputes that make the appointments process look rational. The act, introduced by Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) would streamline the disclosure forms and make them all available online, as well as urge the next president to reduce the total number of appointees.

And Congress and the president must keep a watchful eye for future bloat. Despite this president’s promise to bring MBA thinking to government, his administration allowed more thickening of the federal hierarchy than Bill Clinton, and it had the slowest transition in modern history. The weeds may not grow fast in Texas, but they certainly do in Washington, especially when the president doesn’t pay attention.