Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Live Bureaucrats and Dead Public Servants: How People in Government Are Discussed on the Floor of the House

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Live Bureaucrats and Dead Public Servants: How People in Government Are Discussed on the Floor of the House

Article excerpt

This article examines the way members of Congress characterize individuals who work in government. Members of the House are driven by a desire to be re-elected (Mayhew 1974) and to make good public policy (Fenno 1973). Many scholars (Edelman 1985, 1988; Stone 1988) argue that securing political and policy goals requires the effective manipulation of political symbols. On the floor, members use symbols to send signals to their constituents and to frame the debate on public policy issues. The government and individuals in government can be used as a positive or negative symbol. Thus, the government can be the "problem" or the "solution," a good or an evil, depending on the symbolic use members decide to make of it.

In this study, I systematically examine floor speeches given by members of the 103rd Congress--the last Democratic Congress of the twentieth century--and the 104th Congress--the first Republican Congress since the 1950s--to determine how members refer to individuals in government. First, I analyze the meaning that members give to such terms as "bureaucrat" and "public servant." Second, and more importantly, I consider how members use these terms as symbols on the House floor by examining the context in which they are used and the way they are manipulated. I also consider the factors that lead members to use these terms to refer to the individuals who work for the government.

Critiques and Defenses of Public Organizations and Their Employees

Historically, both liberals and conservatives have expressed concern regarding the operations of the federal government. A declining level of trust in the federal government has been linked to both liberals and conservatives becoming disillusioned with the actions of the government. (1) Liberals expect the government to accomplish more and to solve national problems. Actions that liberals find too incremental are too radical for conservatives, who feel threatened by the expansion of the government's powers and programs. Although liberals are often seen as being supportive of government and conservatives as being opposed to government, both groups have found parts of the government they like and dislike. Historically, liberals have supported social programs but have been hostile to the government's military and police powers, and conservatives have held opposing views (Lipset and Schneider 1987). (2)

The modern conservative movement has a long history of expressing animosity toward government. (3) However, the election of President Reagan gave the conservative movement a supporter who effectively articulated an antigovernment message to the public at large. In his first inaugural address, Reagan spoke of his concern about the power of the government: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" (Suriano 1993, 294). He went on to say, "It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed" (Suriano 1993, 295). Scholars (Hubbell 1991; Terry 1997) argue that Reagan used federal bureaucrats as symbols for the problems that existed in society and as a foil for the average hardworking American: The tyrannical or incompetent "bureaucrat" makes decisions that could best be made by individuals and are not in the best interest of most Americans.

Symbols and Views of the Bureaucracy

It is somewhat ironic that the ideas of bureaucracy and bureaucrats are viewed negatively. Scholars of public administration and sociology recognize that the formal bureaucracy is the ideal type for governmental organization (Gerth and Mills 1958). The formal bureaucracy has "`purposeful rationality,' in which both goals and means are rationally chosen" (Coser 1971, 217). According to Weber, modern society is possible only because of the rational principles that are the mark of the bureaucratic organization. Quite simply, "bureaucratic types of organization are technically superior to all other forms of administration" (Coser 1971, 230-31). …

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