By Richard S. Dunham
George W. Bush, you may recall, ran for President promising to change the way Washington conducts business. He learned painfully last week just how difficult that can be.
Bush was angered and embarrassed by an incredible tale of bureaucratic malfeasance at the Immigration & Naturalization Service. The President said he nearly spit out his coffee when he read in his morning newspaper on Mar. 13 that INS officials had approved student visas for two September 11 hijackers -- six months after the terrorist attacks. Bush said at a Mar. 13 press conference that he wants the INS to clean up its act, pronto. That's easier said than done.
Politicians have been fond of attacking "bureaucrats" ever since the New Deal dramatically expanded the scope and reach of government during the 1930s. Among the Presidents who have repeatedly pledged to tame the bureaucracy are Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Reagan promised to eliminate at least two Cabinet departments. Clinton, you will recall, even assigned Vice-President Al Gore to "reinvent government." But, in the end, each President has been foiled by The System.
The problems at the INS run deep. The agency has two irreconcilable roles: enforcing the nation's borders and processing paperwork for immigrants and other guests of the U.S. Even before this latest fiasco, House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and others on Capitol Hill had the right idea: Break up the INS. Now, Sensenbrenner will hold new hearings. But breaking up an intractable bureaucracy like the INS is again, easier said than done.
The INS has offered no apology or genuine defense
To Bush's further embarrassment, the agency is mightily resisting any radical change in its mission. What's more, constituency groups who stand to lose in the event of an INS breakup have used their influence to frustrate would-be reformers. These range from government-employee unions to law-enforcement groups. This is "me-first, cover-your-rear" politics at its worst.
Then there are the paper-pushers themselves, the "bureaucrats." The first response of INS officials was that they were following the letter of the law in rubber-stamping the visas six months after the terror attacks. No defense, no apology. "We were only following [congressional] orders," they declared. Oh, come on!
No doubt, the INS is stuck with antiquated computers. This retro agency still processes a significant amount of work the low-tech way: on paper. INS officials have blamed Congress and the White House for not supplying them with enough money to update their outdated equipment. So shift some money. How hard is that? How much humiliation will it take to convince INS managers to stop complaining and start reforming?
Where does the President fit in here? He has to do more than spit out his coffee. He might want to dust off the plaque that Harry S. Truman put on the Oval Office desk when he was President, the one that said, "The buck stops here." He needs to follow through by ordering Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and INS chief James W. Ziglar to fix the paperwork problems Bush calls "inexcusable." Ziglar is to be commended for removing four officials he deemed responsible for the latest problem. Greater accountability is a start.
That's Step One. Step Two is for Bush to aggressively push his proposal to separate the paperwork side of the INS from its enforcement role. He should team up with Sensenbrenner to get it done quickly.
Again, this might be easier said than done. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge lost out in internal White House battles to separate various border-control functions into a more logical, modern system. The same kind of bureaucratic intransigence could keep Bush from radically restructuring the INS.
Here's one of the best tests of Bush's ability to change the way Washington has always done business. Talk is not sufficient. Only action will do.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht