If one were to give serious credence to the lamentations and alarums that arise these days from Capitol Hill and the press, the Great Society is doomed. But the loudest complaints that it will never work have come from some of those who did not want the Great Society around in the first place and seem a bit too eager for the funeral. Though it cannot be claimed that the Great Society is in the best of health, the reports of its passing are, to borrow from Samuel Clemens, exaggerated.
Knocking the federal bureaucracy is a national tradition: the bureaucracy won’t strike back, nor are many important people likely to rush to its defense; the more the bureaucracy carries the blame, the less noticeable is the role of politicians — federal, state, and local — in gumming up the works.
The noise has been amplified of late in large part because there are simply more federal activities to complain about, because having settled so many long-standing issues, Congress at the moment has fewer diversions, because state governments have been shaken from their torpor by legislative redistricting, and because the newest programs were promoted amidst hyperbole from the White House about how much they would accomplish how soon. Finally, this town is a tight little island where rumors of mismanagement become fashionable verities in no time.
All of this presents splendid strategy for President Johnson’s political opponents: it is factually impossible to deny his legislative achievements; it is difficult to argue that the current political climate permits him to do much more; it is safe to charge that the new programs are not producing what was promised.
Too many programs
But, the crocodile tears aside, there are problems. There are too many “categorical” programs in which federal funds are given out for a single specific purpose — disposing of sewage, providing college dormitories, maintaining a peanut-research laboratory, building a highway, training mental health workers, and on and on. Multiplied by the number of federal programs, the results are thousands of contractual agreements — containing regulations, guidelines, and requirements — with state, local, and private institutions in more than 90,000 separate jurisdictions.
This fragmentation denies flexibility to mayors and governors trying to work with programs where federal money is involved, and correspondingly it reinforces the autonomy of the state and local sewer authorities, welfare agencies, health departments, and highway directors who deal directly with their federal benefactors. It leads to programs in the same field — for example, education or urban development — which overlap or contradict each other or operate out of phase and which proceed from three or more federal agencies.
Just how many federal programs there are is one of Washington’s mysteries. The Budget Bureau, which, oddly, relies on the Library of Congress for its figures, says there are about 180 “major” programs; the Department of Housing and Urban Development reports 236 “urban” programs; the Office of Economic Opportunity published a 414-page catalogue of federal programs “for individual and community improvement.”
That there are so many detailed programs in different categories may be senseless, but it is no accident. Congress likes it that way. A congressman is at his most powerful not when he casts his votes on the floor but as he operates in his subcommittee, arbitrating among the competing claims of how a program should work, who should be in charge, who gets the money, with the implied power to investigate and harass if things do not go his way. Congress operates essentially as a collection of subcommittee fiefdoms which leave one another alone, and this also works out nicely for the client groups — the highway engineers, the welfare workers, the vocational educators — who know where to go to see that the strings on the highway or welfare or vocational education money lead to their hands. The result is a set of vertical relationships, leading, for example, from the state highway engineers to the federal Bureau of Public Roads to the Roads Subcommittee, in which each party is in a position to do the others favors.
The President has a hard time muscling into this cozy alliance, and therefore has great difficulty putting an end to or even shrinking programs that have outlived their usefulness. The programs that Congress is perennially willing, even eager, to cut are those where the clients are politically weak — the poverty program, for example, or foreign aid.
New thinking, new approaches
There are some innovations afoot in Washington which are startling in both number and importance, and also in the seriousness with which they are encouraged by the White House. Basic to the new look is a crucial new sophistication in the way key Administration planners view what they are trying to do. They think in terms of cities and poverty rather than mass transit here, vocational education there, urban renewal here, TB checkups there. This simple conceptual change leads to fundamental changes of approach.
Once it is understood that the ghetto problem is at once a job problem and a school problem and a health problem and a legal aid problem, the next step is to gather all the relevant programs into a combined, coordinated, horizontal rather than vertical approach. This was the idea behind the “model cities” program enacted last year and now getting under way (it was called “demonstration cities” until it dawned on Administration officials that “demonstration” and “cities” were not the most fortunate words to link). The federal government will reward, by playing a large part of the local costs, cities which draw up promising plans for a concerted social and physical attack on entire neighborhoods. Some 120 urban aid programs operated under 5 federal departments could be involved.
The approach is in terms of problem-solving rather than in terms of doing a bit for labor, for educators, for welfare workers, for the construction industry. The problems (health, poverty, the cities) are being viewed in terms of “systems analysis,” an approach first brought into effective use at the Pentagon. Someone has remarked that there are as many versions of systems analysis as shades of blond, but in essence systems analysis recognizes that actions affecting one part of the system are likely to affect the rest of it, and tries to understand how.
For example, if this had been done over the last ten years, and if the broader implications of various programs undertaken in the name of some specific advance had been better understood, there might not have been so many highways that slash through cities destroying neighborhoods or so many urban renewal projects that destroyed more than they built. This process of defining a problem, understanding its components, and then applying the resources of a number of institutions has long since been taken for granted in the physical and military sciences in trying to solve such problems as putting a man on the moon, building a new missile or a supersonic transport plane, or curing cancer.
The Administration’s social planners say they are now proceeding, with great difficulty, to the solution of domestic problems on the basis of models and experiments rather than by the usual methods of nationwide dosage of the latest patent medicine. Once there has been built up a climate of acceptance of federal aid to education or a war on poverty, it is hard to resist getting a full-scale program going while the getting is good. Yet massive application of ideas that could have stood more cutting and fitting creates disillusionment and is in the end both monetarily and politically expensive. This is why the neighborhood centers are being launched on a pilot basis, and why the original model cities proposal was to start out the program as a sort of national contest, rewarding the fifty-odd cities with the most promising plans and expanding the program only after more was learned about what might work. This was, however, less than Congress would swallow, and now some seventy cities are eligible.
Another major change that sets the new Great Society programs apart from their predecessors is that many of them recognize that Washington should not do the local planning. In the model cities program, the block grants for health services, the federal school aid program, and the community action program, the onus for drawing up the plans and making them work is on the cities. Federal standards must still be met, and sometimes the detailed plans must be approved by the federal bureaucracy; this fails to eradicate delay or paper work, but it is far preferable to the older system under which the federal government would tell the recipients exactly how the money was to be spent.
All of these are basic conceptual changes. Fitting in with them are some structural and even mechanical changes. In mid-1965 President Johnson instructed all domestic agencies to utilize the tools of a programming-planning-budgeting system (PPBS). PPBS, in use in the Pentagon since 1961, is essentially a method of trying to measure the benefits of a program in relation to its costs, and to examine alternative ways of reaching defined goals so as to select the least costly method.
Second, there has been some, and there will be more, reorganization of the domestic agencies. The reorganization of government agencies also means a reallocation of power within Congress from one subcommittee to another and a disruption of the established relationships between the clients, the bureaucrats, and the benefactors.
The politics of innovation
The great hope of the poverty program was the unusually unfettered money for community action programs, but Congress has been unable to resist deciding for itself how the community action money should be spent — mostly for Project Head Start (threeand four-yearolds won’t picket city hall). The Administration was barely able to shake loose Congress’ control over each little health grant, a true model cities idea was resisted, and so on. (Congressmen are now beginning to realize that PPBS could undercut their own arguments that Kentucky must have more highways and Kalamazoo another flood control project, and they have started to deny funds for PPBS activities.) Robert Wood, the Undersecretary of HUD, a former MIT political science professor, suggests that what is developing here is a confrontation between the “politics of distribution — the concern with satisfying needs for goods and services, with allocating scarce resources, with mediating between conflicting classes or ideologies (business and labor, farm and city)” which has been followed largely since the New Deal — and the “politics of innovation,” wherein “the focus turns to ways to expand the resources and to deal with the problems in the larger context. Our preoccupation is less with ideology than with the quality of our national life. The New Deal focused on redistributing fixed resources and assumed rather stable problems; the politics of innovation assumes expanding resources and changing definitions of the problems.” The question is no longer one of whether there should be “handouts to the poor” but how to “break the poverty cycle”; the question is not how to move more cars by more roads, but how to develop new transportation techniques that adjust to the whole urban environment.
The Heller plan
The gradual dissipation of ideological issues leaves politicians with little to argue about except how well the federal government is functioning, normally a matter of limited political sex appeal. It creates the odd situation in which Lyndon Johnson, conservative House Republican leader Melvin Laird (Wisconsin), Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the social planners in the bureaucracy all start sounding pretty much alike: “the people” must make more of their own decisions, “Washington” must not take on too much, and so on. It enables Republicans to make official doctrine a plan first plumped for by one of those dread “new economists,” Walter Heller, to return in a lump sum to the states a specified proportion of federal tax revenues. It gives the idea favor among liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, all governors, and even some mayors, provided they are guaranteed their cut.
The Heller plan appears to offer a solution for much that is wrong, but there are other reasons and motives offered for supporting it: it can provide states with money they can’t seem to raise themselves, it proffers stringless money, it mollifies state political leaders, it drains off funds from Great Society programs, it provides Republicans anxious to appear “positive” with something to offer, and it increases the power of state governments. One observer here suggests that people react to the Heller plan according to their own perceptions of a state legislature, which range in enlightenment from Heller’s Minnesota and Laird’s Wisconsin to Texas or Mississippi.
Yet the key point about the Heller plan is that it threatens the practitioners of the politics both of distribution and of innovation: the former with loss of power to arbitrate among the interests; the latter with loss of opportunities to initiate new federal programs which entice state and local officials into attacking problems in new ways or which bypass the officialdom altogether. Therefore Congress is not likely to consider a Heller plan seriously until there is a chance to cut taxes, and perhaps not even then. Meanwhile, the search is on for more ways to provide federal support for important activities without so much federal nitpicking.
“Please,” Edward Logue, the head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, pleaded recently to a congressional committee, “don’t send Parkinson along with the money to tell us how to spend it. . . . We are as honest as you are, and as capable as you are, and we know our needs better.” This is true of Mr. Logue, who masterminded the famous renewals of New Haven and Boston, but he has few peers. The new programs in the states and cities are suffering a crisis of competence as much as anything else.
Politicians must get re-elected, and the electorate is inclined to ask what they have done for the voters lately. The politics of distribution brought fairly quick and visible payoffs; the politics of innovation do not lend themselves to the stump speech. Neither do the problems they are facing lend themselves to quick solutions. President Johnson, while he seems to understand and encourage the new ways, has failed to put them across to the public.
The complaining and the bickering over what ails the young Great Society grow louder. The danger is that in the confusion what will be thrown out will be the baby, the bath water, and the plumbing and the house besides. It has taken a lot of people a lot of effort over a lot of years to build that house; what may be lost along with it is any national confidence that we can build another one.
Elizabeth Brenner Drew