My friend Colonel Thom likes the phrase “passive irresponsibility”. I like that too as a way of explaining our federal government’s frequent failures. No one really means for the health care web site not to work, for VA construction projects to go far over budget, or for Veterans to have to wait and wait and wait for appointments and benefits. Stuff like that just sort of happens again and again. The underlying cause of these failures is the existence of what I call the 4th Branch of government. Some call it the “Administrative State”, or the “Deep State”, but calling it the 4th Branch draws attention to the fact that it should not exist.
As you probably know, our national government was created about 250 years ago with three branches: a Legislative Branch to make laws, an Executive Branch to carry them out, and a Judicial Branch independent of the other branches. Our government still is organized that way, except that over the years a 4th Branch has emerged. This 4th Branch is a integral part of the Executive Branch, and does also answer to Congressional members, committees, subcommittees and the Congress as a whole. However, in many ways the 4th Branch is largely unsupervised. It operates independently under “an umbrella of systemic neglect” (another phrase Thom likes). Few pay much attention to the workings of the 4th Branch. In some ways this 4th branch is good because it fills in gaps between the laws passed by Congress and how they will be enforced, but in other ways it can said to be more analogous to a cancer eating away at our nation’s founding principles. The 4th Branch exists to keep itself alive and growing, and is not limited by anything except for its funding.
Mission creep at the Department of Veterans Affairs is a good example of how the 4th Branch thrives. In 1959 VA adopted a portion of President Lincoln Second Inaugural Address as its motto: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan”. Consistent with this motto, the primary VA mission was to care for those who had been mentally or physically injured in war. Today almost anyone who was in the military, whether in battles or not, is entitled to a wide range of VA services. What happened? Did VA change its motto? Did Congress pass a law redefining what “…borne the battle…” meant?
No. They did not. The change happened gradually under the “umbrella of systemic neglect” that provides cover for the 4th Branch to survive and grow. VA has been able to revise its mission because each federal Department largely defines its own mission, and how to use its funding. VA, Congress, Veterans Organizations, and the public seem happy to have organizations like Wounded Warriors take over more of the original VA mission of caring “…for him who shall have borne the battle…”. VA has instead been funding rural health expansion, transgender awareness, market share increases, and other initiatives that have little or nothing to do with caring for those Veterans who fought for our country.
Mission creep is going on at every level of the federal government from VA to the National Park Service to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration to the National Security Administration to the Bureau of Land Management. It is happening every day and everywhere in government. Mission creep is a key reason the 4th Branch continues to grow.
The other major key to the growth of the 4th Branch is funding. The 4th Branch never lets a crisis go to waste. Every government failure is an opportunity to get more funding. Each failure follows the same pattern. Someone reports a massive data breech, unsafe medical practices, or a construction project that is far over budget. The media reports on the failure. The Inspector General investigates and writes a report. The Department finds people to blame and reassigns them or occasionally fires them. Congress has hearings. Some top management at the Department is replaced. The new management implements new processes, and reports back to Congress with a request for funding to fully implement the changes. Congress grants the funding, but the underlying problem remains. The 4th Branch continues intact, and waits for the next crisis and the opportunities it will bring.
In our personal financial lives and in business, getting bigger and finding new ways to survive is a good thing, but government is supposed to be limited to what the law says it can do. The “passive irresponsibility” of the Executive and Congressional Branches has allowed the 4th branch to thrive under “an umbrella of systemic neglect”. Deconstructing the 4th Branch will not be easy. Aligning funding with Departmental missions defined by Congress and the Executive Branch will be a long process. The first step is to understand the scope of the problem. We have only scratched the surface.