The Danger of Depending on Unaccountable Bureaucrats

The coronavirus pandemic is providing a treasure trove of case studies in how government bureaucrats are failing ordinary Americans. Failures to protect the public have come to pass despite many of career officials having both adequate funding and years of time to prepare for just this kind of disaster.

That’s one of the two main unstated takeaway findings of a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released by Gene L. Dodaro, the Comptroller General of the United States. The other unstated finding is that government bureaucrats, when forced to implement new policies quickly, are failing to institute obvious safeguards to prevent fraud and protect the interests of American taxpayers.

Writing at the New York Post, Betsy McCaughey outlines examples from the GAO report that describe failures that were years in the making. The following excerpts share one common characteristic: they somehow feature the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the single government agency whose purpose for existing is to address infectious diseases.

Start with air travel. After the 2015 Ebola threat, the GAO urged the US Department of Transportation to draft a plan for safe air travel during an infectious-disease outbreak. Five years later, the DOT is still squabbling, insisting the job should be done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instead — travelers be damned….

One of the GAO’s most serious concerns is the absence of a specific vaccine-distribution plan. President Trump launched Operation Warp Speed to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Development and manufacturing are on a warp-speed timetable — or as close as we can get to it in an otherwise slow and daunting process. But the CDC, which acknowledges responsibility for distribution, is dragging its feet.

The public wants specifics. If and when a vaccine is ready, where should they go — to a doctor’s office, a hospital, a drugstore, a testing site? Who will be at the head of the line — the elderly, health workers, first responders, minority communities? These questions should be discussed publicly now, instead of causing delays once the scientists complete their job….

The GAO reports that even now, four months in, the CDC can’t provide accurate data on who is getting tested. In the private economy, these CDC officials would be fired. It’s disappointing that Trump has put up with this chronic incompetence.

Indeed. The GAO’s report also outlines problems with other federal agencies, including the Treasury Department and the Department of Labor, that face problems because their career officials failed to do common sense things in setting up emergency relief programs, including:

  • Making sure they weren’t blindly sending checks to dead people.
  • Keeping track of how emergency funds are being spent to ensure they go only to those eligible to receive them.

These are obvious things that any organization that responsibly holds its members accountable for their actions would do, right? And yet, as McCaughey observes, none of the career bureaucrats who are directly responsible for setting and implementing their policies during the nation’s coronavirus pandemic are likely to ever be held accountable for their failures.

Instead, they’ll just demand more money from American taxpayers and try to pass the buck for their failures to other bureaucrats. Because that’s what they’ve always been allowed to do.

If that situation is ever going to change, real accountability needs to come to all government officials. How else can ordinary Americans protect themselves from their government bureaucrats’ failures?

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the creator of the Government Cost Calculator at MyGovCost.org.
Posts by Craig Eyermann | Full Biography and Publications
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