Bypassing regular order doesn’t only mean that fewer of the people’s elected representatives have a say in these matters. The price of this kind of expediency also means that rigorous analysis is spurned while special interests gain an amplified voice.
Given that members of congressional leadership are their party’s most prolific fundraisers, it should come as no surprise that they often have the closest ties to lobbyists. Meanwhile, the players whose influence is most sidelined by top-down control—the committee staffers—also happen to be some of the smartest and most objective folks in the room: agency veterans, investigators, attorneys, and Ph.D.-level technical specialists in fields ranging from economics to chemistry. Centralization, in short, destroys both the wisdom of the crowd and real expert authority—and it certainly isn’t limited to the legislative branch.
According to a remarkable report by Karen DeYoung in The Washington Post this summer, the decades-old trend of centralization in executive-branch national security decision-making has dramatically accelerated in recent years. High-level officials throughout the federal government complain of increased micromanagement from the National Security Council, which grew from a staff of 25 during the Carter administration to approximately 400 today. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described a “penchant for control” that in his case meant submitting speeches, statements, and interview requests to NSC approval. And his predecessor in that office, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has said that White House “micromanagement ... drove me crazy.” Likewise, diverse voices inside and outside of government believe the administration should be mindful of the mission creep of the NSC.
In fact, specialists across federal departments and agencies complain that their technical expertise and experience are systematically undervalued, because the opinions of less experienced staffers at the NSC matter so much more. An unnamed former senior official told DeYoung that Ebola was a good example of this: “That can’t just be left to CDC and State and others to manage. No. You have to have a czar and a whole team of people. And why is that? Because the politics on this issue have become so much more corrosive and challenging that it’s a natural instinct for the White House to say, ‘We’ve got to have an eye on this. On everything.’”
But then who can blame the Obama administration? Or Speaker Ryan? In an age when political survival depends on winning every short-term media cycle, the drive to centralize power is natural, even seductive. That’s not to say it cannot—or should not—be resisted. As the Bipartisan Policy Center argued last year, all this centralization is a leading cause of Congress’s inability to pass the solution-oriented bipartisan legislation of the sort that committees used to churn out. The center called for members of Congress to stick by their own demands for regular order.
But institutional reform cannot happen in a vacuum: This unhinged centralization is a reflection of America’s hyper-aggressive political and media culture as much as any one politician’s or party’s desire for power.