VA Scandal: Crisis of Big Government

Peggy Noonan’s op-ed on the weekend was titled “The VA Scandal Is a Crisis of Leadership.” Noonan discusses how President Obama “doesn’t do the plodding, unshowy, unromantic work of making government work.” Obama is not a good manager, and so scandals like the current one are to be expected.

I enjoy Noonan’s articles and her observations on Obama’s style are right on target, but her view about why the VA scandal happened is off the mark. The president does seem to spend his time giving speeches, strategizing politics, and playing golf rather than rolling up his shirt sleeves and fixing programs. He does seem to be “a show horse, not a workhorse,” as Noonan says. But that’s not why the VA scandal happened.

The VA situation is appalling, but it has common elements with scandals that happen under every president. Those elements include bureaucrats behaving selfishly, politicians promising reforms and not following through, federal workforce dysfunction, and the failed central planning of a complex industry. The VA scandal happened because the government is a giant monopoly with none of the built-in checks of the marketplace. Federal politicians themselves are not a check because they are too distracted and the government is far too large for them to keep track of.

Noonan says, “the president is an executive, and executives manage.” Really? He could efficiently manage the entire $3.5 trillion government and its 2.1 million workers and 2,200 programs? I doubt it. I think we could vote in the head of PWC as the next president, and we would still have scandal after scandal in Washington.

Noonan worked in the Reagan administration, and so she remembers the 1980’s HUD scandal. The shenanigans, waste, and bad behavior under Reagan’s HUD secretary Sam Pierce over eight years were jaw-dropping. HUD under Pierce was a cronyism factory for the secretary’s buddies and Republican donors. Tad DeHaven discusses the abuses in this essay.

Perhaps Ronald Reagan should have been a better manager. But he understood that the problem in Washington is far deeper than just a need to run things better, as many of his famous comments reveal:

Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So governments’ programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”