Education Opinion

Policy, Interest Groups, and the ‘Gang of 237'

By Chester E. Finn Jr. — May 10, 1989 12 min read
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Life in the upper-middle reaches of the federal government is pleasant enough--if you don’t care about getting anything done.

You can attend swanky receptions, welcome a procession of interesting visitors to your office, zip around the country mouthing pleasant remarks to conferences beyond counting, get your picture taken with famous people, preside over a thousand meetings of your deferential staff, and sign your name to enough pieces of paper that by close-of-business most days you actually have the impression you were working.

That’s not to say it’s idyllic. The pay is only so-so, and the rules make it practically impossible to earn anything outside. The windows don’t open. The hours are on the long side. Occasionally, you must try to be nice to people you can’t stand. The government-issue furniture is hard on your lumbar region. The car that was to take you to the White House meeting has no available driver.

But these agonies won’t last forever. Supposedly, you’ll be famous and get rich when they end. Besides, think how important you are. You’re what is called a “policymaker.”

Therein lies the rub. Just try to make some. Try, especially, to make any policy that differs in the tiniest detail from those the government has followed for the last three decades.

Never mind that the old approach made bad situations worse, that it accomplished virtually none of its goals, or that the President was elected in part because of his pledge to change it. If you want a pleasant life in the executive branch, you will under no circumstances rock any boats.

There are two reasons for this. The better known--we shall return to it--is that lots of folks outside the executive branch will do their level best to keep you from succeeding and make you sorry you tried. Perhaps less widely understood is how fiercely the executive branch itself fights against change. It battles twice as hard if the change is more than marginal--if it entails a fresh idea, an alternate strategy, or a significant realignment of priorities, even within a minuscule program.

I spent three and a half years in a fairly senior post in the Education Department--not just an assistant secretary but also part of a dynamic Secretary’s inner circle--and was still nonplussed by the difficulty of getting anything done that varied even slightly from past practice.

The essential organizational fact-of-life in government is that at least 237 people who work for the same President and mostly for the same Secretary but do not work for you are able to derail your initiatives.

At Education, most of them are employed by the department’s “staff offices": planning and budget, general counsel, legislation, public affairs, intergovernmental/interagency affairs, and management--this last a hydra-headed enterprise that runs everything from personnel to computer services to the dread “grants and contracts service.” Then there is the OMB, which stands, I believe, for the Office of Micromanagement and Backtalk.

Whether it’s a new program you hope to start, a grant to make, a person to hire, a conference to hold, a report to publish, a major statutory amendment to propose, a mossy regulation to update, even a press release to issue, all 237 of them get a shot at it before it can happen. Those who cannot flat-out veto it can so distort it as to make it unrecognizable and so delay it as to make it pointless.

No matter that you discussed it ahead of time with the Secretary and Undersecretary, and they both think your idea is terrific. They don’t belong to the Gang of 237. Though you can sometimes convince these folks if you speak directly with them one by one, or get their objections overruled if you go straight to their bosses, this process is like getting an entire caravan of camels through the eye of a needle: terribly slow and inefficient, hard on both camel and needle.

For some reason, the Education Department is worse about these things than other federal agencies. Its managerial processes are less flexible, more routinized, far more tedious. Perhaps its interoffice power struggles are worse. Maybe its staff offices are so bloated that they keep busy by bickering with one another--and harassing the “program” offices.

In any case, the department’s ponderous uniformities posed special problems for our research-and-statistics enterprise. Agency routines are designed for large formula-grant programs that change very little from one year to the next, whereas the work of a research unit is quite different--the more so when the Administration’s policy goals for it included nonincremental change and expansion.

Suppose, however, if only for discussion, that an initiative of some sort actually makes it through the executive-branch minefield. Now we return to the more familiar problem. No matter what it is--a budget, a bill, a regulation, a competition, a conference--you can be sure your initiative will upset an organization or interest group that prefers things the way they are. If it’s not your lucky day, it will upset lots of them.

The commonest reason for upset is that these “interested parties” are accustomed to receiving money under the current arrangements. I’m remembering the American Library Association’s hostility to our bill renovating the archaic federal library-aid programs, and the ERIC clearinghouses’ battle against realigning their substantive portfolios.

But it isn’t always simple greed. Occasionally, one of their principles is involved. For example, the research fraternity believes in pure grants, in which the government agency hands the outside scholar a bucket of money to do with pretty much as he pleases; accordingly, the American Educational Research Association fought our attempts to fund some studies through “cooperative agreements,” in which federal staff experts function as the universities’ partners-in-inquiry.

Sometimes an organization’s reputation is at stake: What do you mean, the projects in the National Diffusion Network lack curricular value? Who are you to say so, anyhow?

The federal government is so porous that these groups know what you are contemplating well before the general public does. Much of the time, they learn it from one of your employees--another party who favors the status quo and who is cozy with the outside interest to boot.

If you have additional money to spend, you can sometimes co-opt interest groups by offering to “hold harmless” the current beneficiaries. But playing that game means throwing good money after bad, enlarging the government to reach a goal that would better have been achieved by redirecting resources from something of small value to something of greater.

Unless thus cosseted with funds, the aggrieved interest group will do all it can to stop you. And it has many paths to explore. It may start by appealing to your boss, getting a personal friend to call you, or perhaps trying to embarrass you in the press. But those are just sideshows. The center ring is Capitol Hill, to which the group almost invariably repairs in search of some sort of Congressional intervention.

This can take many forms, the simplest being a phone call from a Congressional staffer--a call that his boss doesn’t even know about. It may come directly to you, to the department’s legislative office, or to someone else in the agency thought to be in a position to stop you.

The hierarchy of intervention includes, in ascending order, a letter from an individual senator or representative (customarily signed by machine); mail from bunches of them, usually including chairmen of committees with jurisdiction over your authorizing legislation or your appropriation (but still signed by machine and seldom known to members themselves); material inserted into the Congressional Record, usually in the form of staff-written remarks never actually uttered on the House or Senate floor; and a phone call from a member of the Congress to yourself or your boss--evidence that the issue has now risen above the purely staff level. Tip O’Neill once rang me up from the Speaker’s office about a grant competition in which Boston College was a contender.

If none of these steps works, an “oversight” hearing by a committee or subcommittee could be next. Here you’re asked difficult questions, but no formal action results.

When such bullying fails, or members want to do more than go through the motions on behalf of constituents, you’re apt to receive “report language” from a committee, obiter dicta stapled to your appropriation telling you what that committee expects you to do or cease doing. Such admonitions lack the force of law but are often taken seriously.

The apogee of Capitol Hill involvement is official, binding action by the Congress as a whole. This is surprisingly rare--both because the legislative branch has internal tangles of its own and because the executive branch is so easily jawboned into submission--but it does happen.

It can take several forms, from a resolution of disapproval (of a regulation, say) to actual authorizing legislation. In between lie appropriations wrinkles, both the kind that oblige you to spend money in a way you hadn’t intended--millions of extra dollars were thus channeled to the regional labs--and the kind that forbid you to spend it in ways you had planned. Incredible as it still seems to me, the 16 ERIC clearinghouses got the Congress to bar us from changing any of their assignments in the next contract competition, even though the old array was spotty and inefficient. That prohibition naturally conferred competitive advantage on the incumbents.

Having few operations of its own to run, the Congress likes to tie down the executive branch with as many strings as the Lilliputians used to shackle Gulliver. This impulse is even stronger when the nation has had such a long spell of Democratic hegemony on Capitol Hill and Republican occupancy of the White House.

But one must bear in mind, too, that the aggrieved outsiders trooping up the Hill are always someone’s constituents--and if they are librarians or school-board members, they are practically everybody’s constituents. Members of the Congress employ numerous staffers charged with keeping them happy, and often these young men and women have few other ways of leaving their mark on public policy. It was my experience that the interest groups could unfailingly engender some degree of Congressional action on their behalf, always directed at averting change, except when change meant spending more.

What I’ve come to see more clearly since exiting the government is how the executive branch invites such intervention from the Hill--not so much because of willful flouting of the Congress by political appointees as because of the iron grip of the Gang of 237.

As a member of the new National Assessment Governing Board, I’ve watched the organization head for those selfsame Congressional aides to protect us from the toils of the Education Department bureaucracy. Our panel, created by the Stafford-Hawkins Act in 1988, was explicitly designed to be independent of the executive branch. But the 237 cannot abide anything they do not control, and in matters of staffing, budgeting, procurement, travel arrangements, and a hundred details of organizational life, they have impeded the board’s ability to function efficiently and autonomously.

In such matters, they can move incredibly fast; exasperating the board took only a few months. Getting little satisfaction when we protested to the executive branch, we slid right into the behavior pattern of the aggrieved interest group and marched to Capitol Hill for redress. Though this particular matter has not yet escalated very far up the hierarchy of Congressional interventions, the process of again reining in the executive branch has plainly begun.

Thus does the Congress become more “imperial” and the executive branch more constrained. Thus do the same 237 both erect internal obstacles and create situations that beget outside shackles.

The more customary sluggishness of the bureaucracy has a self-fulfilling aspect, too. Seeing a major project through from idea to implementation usually takes two or three years. Few political appointees last that long. This means that the only crops you can hope to harvest are those you sow the week you arrive. You cannot reasonably count on your successors to weed and fertilize your seedlings. After all, they want to plant their own. Besides, the Gang of 237 swoops down again the day you depart, paralyzing anything that is still in motion. With this knowledge, the prospect of launching a major initiative when you’re 18 months, say, into your term, is so daunting that prudence tells you instead to take a few more trips, give some more speeches, and down a second drink at those receptions.

Finally, there is the matter of money. Here, however, I do not refer to the “program budget,” which is all that the public and the interest groups generally notice. The really acute fiscal problem lies in what government calls “salaries and expenses.” The housekeeping budget is always a favorite target of budget cutters because there is seldom any political retribution for slashing it.

But each time it slices here, the government hamstrings itself. When these funds are as tight as they were during my tenure in the Education Department, it becomes virtually impossible to obtain decent computer equipment, send staff members for needed training, or eke out the airplane tickets that enable them to monitor major projects, attend professional meetings, and otherwise keep current in their fields.

You cannot overcome staff shortcomings by paying expert consultants what they’re worth, either. You cannot publish and disseminate information, though that undertaking is indispensable to education in general and the research shop in particular. You cannot even get books for the library. One of the great tragedies of the Education Department is that a potentially fine research library is chronically understaffed, underacquisitioned, even undercatalogued.

Most of these weaknesses are self-inflicted, not unlike those of Calcutta beggars who are deliberately crippled. But the beggars thereby have their productivity boosted. When the government maims its agencies by hacking at their “s and e” budgets, its always-limited effectiveness plummets further.

So why would any reasonably sane person sign up for a tour of duty in the executive branch? There are moments of exhilaration, of course, chances to place your ideas before wider audiences, and rare circumstances when all the stars line up, the Gang of 237 briefly glances the other way, and you can get something of consequence done. With direction--and steadfast backing--from above, some civil servants are astonishingly adept at making the gears mesh.

My one large satisfaction in those 40 months is the renaissance we began in the gathering of education data and the assessment of educational outcomes. This project is now off to a good start. It was worth doing.

But nothing stays done. Most of the 237 are back on duty. The status-quo ante can still be recovered, and chances are great that it will be.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 1989 edition of Education Week as Policy, Interest Groups, and the ‘Gang of 237'


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