Hastert: A Robot?

Watching the Foley scandal unfold - after the past years of Iraq, Katrina, and everything else - you have to wonder how, in the operations of our government, doing your job well somehow became completely beside the point.

If I were running Congress - or any government agency with a public trust, or a private business, for that matter - and it turned out one of my subordinates was sending lewd IMs and doing God-knows-what-else with teenagers also in my employ, I'd be mad as hell. I'd get to the bottom of it. And I'd hope that everybody would see that I deplored what had happened and would do everything I could to prevent it from happening again.

That's just a normal, human reaction. It's what we all expect from someone in a position of responsibility. It's not particularly heroic or unusual; it doesn't preclude self-interest, trying to save your own skin.

Yet we've seen no such recognizably human reaction from the Congressional leadership. Speaker Hastert does not appear to be on the case. His outrage is directed not at institutional problems, his staff, or even at Mark Foley, but at nefarious conspiracies. (Full disclosure: I am a recipient of a Katrina-related grant from the Open Society Institute funded by George Soros, a favored bete noir of Hastert's.) Everybody's pointing fingers, and Hastert's belated acceptance of responsibility harks back to Janet Reno's similar move to publicly accept responsibility for the FBI's Branch Davidian debacle by saying, publicly, "I accept responsibility." This ritual has one aim only: to make the media go away. But the screwup that spawned it remains.

When did "doing your job right" start sounding quaint, like something the British did in the 19th century?

I thought a lot about this problem in writing about Katrina, where cronyism and a basic indifference to actual results in government programs all contributed to that debacle. Of course, we've seen it bigtime in Iraq, where all kinds of priorities - politics, money, ideology, ego, whatever - all trumped basic competence. Then the political and bureaucratic mechanisms we have in place to address errors and problems were undermined too.

"Competence" has never been a sexy political issue. Just ask Michael Dukakis. But there's something more profound and disturbing going on here than mere bumbling. One need only look at the president's latest assertion of authority. Incompetence isn't something to be avoided. It's now another right of the executive.