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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Savage reporting....

Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe is perhaps the most informed and informative reporter on the Washington DC beat. Unlike his colleagues who get hung up on the latest media frenzy, Savage is consistently reporting on the mundane stuff that ultimately morphs into constitutional issues and significant political crises. What is more, he does it in a way that makes these otherwise back page items into front page news.

So far his ultimate triumph has been the story of Bush's abuse of presidential signing statements -- a story that has raised eyebrows even among the most loyal of White House supporters in the legal community. Only the firing of the eight US Attorneys has done more to undermine that important support.

In today's Globe, however, the story is about the problems caused by the end of earmarks, for now agencies that have let their "discretionary policymaking" muscle atrophy from non-use over the past decade are finding the going tough. With congressional instructions no longer in place, we are back to the old days when authority to make implementation choices ("who gets what, when, where, and how" -- which is Harold Lasswell's definition of politics) is in the hands of agencies.

What is not in place, however, are the mechanisms of what Theodore J. Lowi had termed "interest group liberalism" (requires JSTOR access) which was characterized by the capture of agency decisions by powerful interests. Those interests had moved their business activity and influence to Congress after 1994 and had effectively preempted bureaucratic authority through earmarking and related tools. (For contrasting but related view, see Weisberg on "Interest Group Conservatism".) But with earmarking now earmarked as taboo, the agencies find themselves awash in real power and responsibility with only the faintest guidance from a White House that is rushing to fill the gap before too many of its priorities are trumped by those civil servants who have patiently suffered from the misfortunes of the theory of the unitary executive.

One indicator of what is taking place was mentioned in the Savage article: NOAA scientists, long suffering from the Administration's effective quashing of programs related to climate change, have been taking advantage of the vacuum to promote changes that some probably felt would not take place until a new Administration was in place....

But the implications of all this are broader and deeper than touched on by Savage's write up. It may be time to dust off our old copy of Lowi's End of Liberalism....


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