Big bureaucracy is back in fashion at the Heritage Foundation it seems at least if Robert Moranto and Robert Moffit speak
for the venerable think tank. Writing twice over the past few months in these pages, the two Heritage authors have constructed
one of the most effective defenses of bureaucratic layering since Max Weber first put pen to paper in the 1800s [see “Keep ‘Em Coming;
In Defense of Political Appointees,” May 2, 2001, The Washington Times & “Bring on the Appointees; The President Needs all His Men and Women,” January 16, 2001, The Washington Times].
In taking aim at my recommendations to flatten the bloated federal hierarchy, the Heritage authors do not question the
extraordinary title creep within government. To the contrary, they add a new angle to my argument by showing that the ratio of
deputies to assistant Cabinet secretaries has grown four-fold from an average of 1.4 in the 1960s to 5.8 in the 1990s.
Having accepted my facts, Messrs. Moranto and Moffit mount an extraordinary defense of layering at all levels of the
hierarchy. Although they defend the political layers at the top by rightly noting that the federal government´s 3,000 presidential
appointees are but a drop in the bureaucratic ocean of civil servants, accounting for just 0.2 percent of total federal
employment, they ignore my analysis showing that those 3,000 appointees occupy between a quarter and a third of all layers in
the federal hierarchy.
The two authors are unwilling to stop at the top, however. Messrs. Moranto and Moffit also argue that the vast accretion of
lower-level layers is justified by the need to pay civil servants a competitive wage. As they argue in their most recent
commentary in The Washington Times: “To eliminate these layers would drive many of our highest-skilled, most experienced
civil servants out of government.”
Casting aside the irony that this argument comes from an organization that was singularly responsible for the Reagan
administration´s eight-year campaign against bureaucratic bulge, Messrs. Moranto and Moffit ignore the cost of layering in lost
accountability and poor performance. They also dismiss the possibility that the federal government´s over-layered hierarchy has
become one of the most significant barriers to attracting talented young people to entry-level jobs.
One only need revisit the celebrated security problems at the Department of Energy´s Los Alamos nuclear weapons
laboratory to illustrate the problem. Two years after former Sen. Warren Rudman argued for a semi-autonomous security
agency with the “clear mission, streamlined bureaucracy and drastically simplified lines of authority and accountability to protect
the nation´s nuclear secrets,” the Department of Energy remains an over-layered organization chart that can only be described
as a meandering, mostly unlinked collection of overseers who can easily evade responsibility for what gets lost up and down the
Just like Messrs. Moranto and Moffit, the department has long subscribed to the notion that more leaders equals better
leadership. At its founding in 1979, its secretary, deputy secretary, under secretary, and assistant secretary compartments
contained 10 layers and 56 senior executives, both political and career. By the winter of 1998 when the espionage story broke
in the national media, those four compartments had thickened to 18 layers and 143 senior executives.
The problem in such over-layered, top-heavy organizations is not always a lack of information or possible wrongdoing. It
turns out that half of Washington was told about the vulnerabilities at Los Alamos. Rather, the problem is finding someone,
anyone, who can be held accountable for a decision. Like the childhood game of telephone, in which messages become
hopelessly distorted as they are whispered from child to child, bureaucratic layers create a bureaucratic fog in which Congress
and the president are hopelessly isolated from the people they most need to guide.
The Department of Energy is hardly alone in the thickening, of course. The year 1997 was the first year in civil service
history when middle level employees actually outnumbered lower-level employees. That giant sucking sound coming from
Washington over the past few years has been the retirement of nearly 200,000 senior and middle-level managers in government
and the promotion of almost everyone next in line, all at a cost of $3 billion in voluntary buyouts for what turned out to be a big
retirement party with no visible impact on the basic structure of government.
Meanwhile, the political and career hierarchy has grown ever taller. From 1993 to 1998, federal departments created 16
new senior level titles, including a stunning number of new alter ego deputy posts, including “deputy to the deputy secretary,”
“principal assistant deputy under secretary,” “principle senior deputy assistant secretary,” “associate deputy assistant secretary,”
“chief of staff to the under secretary,” “assistant chief of staff to the administrator,” and “chief of staff to the assistant
administrator.” It hardly matters whether the titles are filled by political or career officers. A layer is a layer is a layer.
Although it is hardly the place of a Brookings Institution author to advise the Heritage Foundation on how to reconcile its
past opposition to bloat with its current defense of layering, let me suggest that Congress and the president put all of the layers,
career and political, on the chopping block and cut them in half.
This simple proposal would reduce the average height of the federal hierarchy to roughly 25 layers, far from the six-to-10
layers considered appropriate in America´s leading corporations, but well on the way to a higher performing government and a
more attractive public service. If Congress and the president can cut the layers without sacrificing a single political or civil
service job, all the better for Messrs. Moranto and Moffit. But surely the Heritage Foundation would not be unhappy if the
flattening produced a few hundred million in savings that could be spent on the tax cuts it also advocates. So, too, one imagines,
would Ronald Reagan, whose portrait graces the foyer of the Heritage Foundation´s Washington headquarters.
Paul C. Light is vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, and author of
“Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Accountability.”