Opinion

BIDLACK: In defense of bureaucrats

Author: Hal Bidlack - December 27, 2017 - Updated: December 27, 2017

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Hal Bidlack

The next time you see my old college roommate, Mr. G, be sure to thank him. For whether you know it or not, you are grateful to Mr. G for his hard work as a career bureaucrat with the Colorado state government. He has made your daily life much better – and your lives quieter and  more tranquil – by his service. You see, Mr. G is the fellow who wrote the actual legislation that created Colorado’s Do Not Call list, which has made our dinner more pacific and our evening more serene. Yup, a bureaucrat.

You see, in Colorado, like most states, the elected legislators draft the broad strokes of legislation. But the actual fine details, the core text of legislation, is usually crafted by a group of dedicated lawyers, like Mr. G, and other staffers, who have the experience and breadth of knowledge needed to write legislation that does its intended job, without introducing unintended side effects that end up making things worse.

In an era when our president is attacking the bureaucracy in near-daily tweets, I think it important to stand up for those who labor in service, while being the butt of jokes, insults — and all too often — POTUS tweets. Let’s take the FBI for example. When I was growing up, I watched Efrem Zimbalist Jr. every week on The F.B.I. and I wanted to be one of those ultra-cool FBI agents. Today we see Mr. Trump attack this historic organization as partisan and that the FBI’s reputation is in “tatters — worst in history.”  I suspect there will be an impact on FBI recruiting the best and the brightest, given this contempt.

So it’s open season on bureaucrats, and that’s a shame. During my 25-plus-year career as an Air Force officer, I had the honor (and I chose that word carefully) of working with career bureaucrats at the State Department, USAFA, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council at the White House. I found the vast majority of my civilian peers to be hard working, dedicated, and earnestly non-partisan. It is these professionals who draft the regulations that put the broadly written legislation passed by Congress into practice. Thus when Congress passes a new law, say, requiring the FDA to ensure the safety of some foodstuff, it is the bureaucrats in the FDA who write the actual rules on how to do it.

Shortly after inauguration, Mr. Trump issued an executive order requiring all federal bureaucracies to delete two regulations for any new regulation they wished to issue. That sounds good, I suppose, if you don’t think it through, because, you know, bureaucrats. But let’s think about that for a moment. Do you really want the FAA, for example, to have to remove two regulations on maintaining commercial airliner engines, in order to add a new one? Do you want the FDA to have to remove two regulations on the safety of your children’s medications in order to introduce one more? Blanket orders, of the type Mr. Trump is fond of issuing, may play well to the political base, but may not be good public policy.

This is not to say, even for a moment, that there are not significant and fixable problems with the entire depth and breadth of the federal government. Certainly there are horror stories of bureaucrats who either didn’t do their job, or did it with too much gusto. But that is the case in all occupations. There are failed firefighters and cops, but we don’t demand that all those brave men and women be fired and their positions eliminated. And there are wonderful, dedicated Americans serving at every level of government.

I know. I’ve seen them.

Career bureaucrats got us to the Moon. And they made our food supply and our cars safer. These bureaucrats serve to serve. They often could do much better, money-wise, in the private sector, but choose to remain in their government jobs because that is the best place from which they can help to mitigate the human condition. It’s a shame we don’t respect them more, and it’s outrageous that a president would make them the enemy.

So at the end of the day, and I mean that quite literally, remember that your phone is not ringing, or at least not nearly as often, because of a state bureaucrat named Mr. G. You can’t really thank him directly, but your life is better because he does his job. Don’t worry, I’ll thank him for you.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.