We have a monster on our hands. Most of us recognize it, but so far, attempts even to wound it, let alone defeat it, have been futile. I am, of course, referring to the Deep State or the Swamp. But while I think most of us have a faint appreciation for how dangerous the Swamp is, it is becoming clear in my research that this cancer is lodged very deeply in the American tissue. Removing it will not be a matter simply of electing a new president, even with the support and sustenance of a friendly Congress or Senate.
In my forthcoming book Dragonslayers: Six Presidents and their War With the Swamp, I take on the struggles that many presidents have had against the “Swamp” of their day. Many of these were intertwined. Abraham Lincoln battled the Slave Swamp (then called the “Slave Power”); Grover Cleveland the Spoils Swamp; Teddy Roosevelt the Trust Swamp; John Kennedy the CIA Swamp; Ronald Reagan the Bureaucracy Swamp; and Donald Trump the Deep State Swamp. One can draw a line through slavery right to the present, though it’s not the “critical race theory” garbage being foisted upon innocent children today.
Slavery’s inherent evil was malignant. It could not stay put. Southerners knew this. Foreigners knew it, which is why one of the first objectives of Enlightenment countries was to ban the slave trade and stop the transportation of human chattel. In America, this issue played out in the territories and did so early. Although Congress had banned slavery from the “Old Northwest” (Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois), once the Louisiana Purchase territories opened up, the debate renewed with vigor. Missouri proved the tinder that started the flame that consumes us still.
When Missouri came up for statehood as a slave state, slave and free states were roughly balanced in representation in the House and the Senate—the South having benefited for years from the “Three-Fifths” clause that artificially added about six percent more pro-slave representatives to the House. It wasn’t Missouri that concerned knowledgeable observers such as Thomas Jefferson. It was what lay beyond Missouri in all the new mid-west and western territories. Were those to come into the Union as slave or free, the “winning” side would have a significant advantage in Congress. Six or seven new free states might be enough to tip the balance toward the emancipation of all slaves. Hence the Missouri Compromise, which Thomas Jefferson said awakened him like a “Firebell in the Night,” it was so threatening.
The Compromise admitted both Missouri and Maine (one slave, one free state) but also drew an imaginary line at Missouri’s southern border: all future territories becoming states below the line (really only Oklahoma) could choose to be slave or free, but above the line (at least half a dozen, maybe double that) states had to be free soil. This, Jefferson thought, meant civil war.
As I’ve explained countless times, the result was the two-party system that began with the creation of the Democrat Party by Martin Van Buren. And here is the key to everything:
This system was built entirely on spoils, or jobs, or political patronage.
It is utterly impossible for modern Americans to appreciate the omnipresence of this reality in the 1800s. Our system today is nothing like it, for reasons I will explain. But for nearly 100 years, Van Buren’s spoils system placed the political parties in charge of the government Swamp, otherwise known as the bureaucracy. Even the Department of War and Department of Navy were thoroughly Swampified, with their appointees coming from the approved ranks of party hacks.
Now, some of these hacks occasionally proved talented. Whether one approves of what he did, the Secretary of the Treasury under Abraham Lincoln, Salmon Chase, was a master at raising government revenues. Some, such as Vice President Chester Arthur (the Swampiest of Swampsters) nevertheless found themselves in power and attacked the Swamp with all their might. By Arthur’s time, party-controlled government jobs were utterly absorbing a new president’s entire energy and time. It took months to sign all the job grants. Lines of job-seekers waited outside the White House and literally thousands of people flooded into D.C. at the start of every new administration for a government position.
The solution was the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which Grover Cleveland (a Democrat, and, one would think, a Swampster) signed. Pendleton severely cut into the parties’ ability to control government jobs, requiring applicants to take the Civil Service Test to obtain a position. This is a good thing, right? Maybe not.
Despite Cleveland’s heroic efforts to retrain the federal budget and to control the Spoils Swamp (with some degree of success), he had no real chance: by shifting control of the Spoils Swamp away from the parties and into the hands of a bureaucracy, real authority over the Spoils Swamp now rested with Congress via the budget. In the subsequent 60 years, two world wars, and the New Deal had emplaced hundreds of agencies, offices, and bureaus in the federal system. Congress couldn’t oversee these in the slightest—it was beyond the control of lawmakers whose only tool was the budget. Offices begat offices. None were ever, ever terminated. As Ronald Reagan once quipped, “The closest thing to eternal life I’ve seen on the earth is a government agency.”
Putative control moved again, this time from Congress to the Presidency. But no presidents until Reagan even considered scaling back the Spoils Swamp, and besides, Congress continued to fund these agencies and offices. As John Marini said in Unmasking the Administrative State, “the role of the parties was also diminished because bureaucratic patronage would become more important than party patronage.” In other words, recommendations within the good ol’ boy networks in D.C. trumped the political favoritism once wielded by the party bosses. Indeed, can you name a “party boss” in either party today? Congress’s ability to control the Bureaucracy Swamp also faded because as members of Congress became managers of professional staffs instead of lawmakers, the chambers disintegrated as “deliberative bodies” engaged in direct interchange of views about leading the country and became more interest-groups organized within Congress run by staffs and committees.
In such a construct, finding, much less acting on, the “public good” or the “national interest” utterly disappeared. As I have argued before here at UncoverDC.com, the House has become almost entirely irrelevant. Whenever Congress does pass a law, such as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), it is not a law in the constitutional sense, but rather only a set of administrative directions. There was never, ever, a discussion, let alone serious debate about where in the Constitution Congress was empowered to provide “health care” or how such a law advanced Americans’ constitutional rights.
Two developments followed this transformation of the Congress/Senate into managers of interest lobbies:
First, the entire foundation of our constitutional system in which the powers of government were limited changed radically whereby the only limitation now on any administrative organ was funding. Appreciating this titanic shift is crucial: as Marini wrote, “the most important political questions are those of principle or public right and how to achieve a common good (or justice); [but] in the administrative state, the most important questions revolve around money and finance (or entitlements).”
Second—and this is where I think many modern conservatives fail to truly appreciate the depth of our situation—the administrative state forced courts to enter the policy arena to determine the legality of administrative decisions. Sometimes courts rejected the policies of these agencies, but even then, courts engaged in legitimizing most other policies and thereby protected the political class from responsibility to manage and control the bureaucracy.
To sum up: what began as a system in which the political parties controlled the Bureaucracy Swamp shifted under Cleveland to Congress controlling the Bureaucracy Swamp, then in the last 30 years, to the courts trying to control the Bureaucracy Swamp. Note that the president was unmentioned because without funding discipline imposed by Congress, a president is relatively helpless in this process . . . as Ronald Reagan quickly found out. In my next installment, I will explain why Donald Trump posed a unique threat to this administrative state, or the Deep State Swamp, but with hardly better results.