The Reagan Counterrevolution.
November 12, 1985        

Most Americans know, or think they know, what the “Reagan Revolution” is about: liberation of private enterprise from public controls; transfer of governmental power from the federal to the local level; reliance on economic growth rather than income redistribution to achieve societal equity; promotion of “traditional” religious and civic values by the state; and reassertion of American military prowess in international affairs. Like all revolutions, this one has relied heavily on slogans: the Reaganites like to call the last of the above-listed objectives “standing tall” in the world, and the other four goals are collectively referred to as “getting government off the backs of the American people.”

What most Americans may not know is that, to a considerable extent, the means used by the Reagan administration to implement this program have been distinctly undemocratic, a violation of the spirit and sometimes the letter of the laws and traditional democratic values for which the administration professes such reverence. This administration has aggressively expanded the prerogatives of the executive branch at the expense of Congress, the courts, public-interest groups, and ordinary citizens, Its real goal — toward which much progress has been made — might better be described as “getting the American people off the back of their government.”

The November issue of "Harper’s" contains an extraordinary article by contributing editor Walter Karp, titled “Liberty Under Siege: The Reagan Administration’s Taste for Autocracy.” It describes in abundant, chilling detail the ways in which the Reagan White House has increased its control over the agencies of the executive branch and then moved to insulate those agencies from Congressional and public scrutiny. All the of the executive branch examples Karp cites are from the public record, and many will be familiar to regular readers of, say, Anthony Lewis or the “Nation’, or to people on the ACLU’s mailing list. But never before have they been assembled so cohesively, into so unmistakable and menacing a pattern. “Liberty Under Siege” is, I believe, the most important piece of political journalism to come along in some time, so it’s worth reporting Karp’s findings at length.

The purpose of the executive branch is to execute the laws made by the legislative branch. To insure that it does so fairly, a complex system of bureaucratic accountability has evolved in the United States, comprising both official and unofficial practices. Officially, government agencies are required announce publicly changes in their rules and procedures, solicit public comment, make information about their activities freely available to Congress and concerned citizens, and establish forums in which clients can appeal agency decisions. Unofficially, bureaucrats grouse to reporters about incompetent or megalomaniacal superiors and corrupt or inefficient programs: This system is far from perfect, but under previous administrations it did make possible at least a modicum of public access to and control over the federal bureaucracy.

By Karp’s account, the Reagan administration began undermining this system immediately upon taking office. To avoid public disclosure, new agency rules were issued as “guidelines” and current rules were altered by internal memorandums. As “The New York Times” reported in July 1981, ‘The White House is structuring key advisory panels so that they do not fall under the rules of the Advisory Committee Act,” which mandates public meetings. Presidential Executive Order 12291 proposed to make “cost-benefit principles” (as applied by the White House budget office), rather than Congress’s legislative intentions, the chief criterion for decisions by executive agencies — a violation of the Constitutional scheme of separation of powers. Karp quotes a report by the American Law Division of the Library of Congress — hardly a radical outfit — on this order: it “sets up a framework for [presidential] management of the rule-making process that is undeniably unprecedented in scope and substance.” That framework “provides no explicit safeguards to protect the integrity of the process or the interest of the public against secret, undisclosed, and unreviewable contacts” — contacts, for example, with the administration’s corporate allies, who may be subject to the rules in question.

In line with the new “cost benefit principles,” the Department of Health and Human Services proposed in 1982 that in the future its regulations — which affect children, the aged, the poor, and the disabled — should be subject to change without public notice, because the “delay” involved would “outweigh the benefits of receiving public comment.” Without public notice, the Department of Labor suspended regulations ensuring fair employment opportunities for Vietnam veterans; when this was discovered, the department claimed that disclosure would have been “unnecessary and contrary to the public interest.” Without public notice, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suspended important safety regulations for power plants. On orders from the White House budget office, the Environmental Protection Agency consulted with the chemical industry on how to circumvent toxic-waste laws; when Congress tried to investigate, the president refused to release internal EPA documents. On another occasion Reagan withheld Interior Department documents, claiming that all information that is “part of the executive branch deliberative process” lies beyond the over sight of Congress; this, as Karp notes, was “the most sweeping assertion of executive secrecy in our history.”

“Cost-benefit principles” have also been applied to government publications. The flow from the Government Printing Office has been cut to a trickle. Among the casualties: CIA reports on US- Soviet military dollar-cost comparisons, which administration critics had used to discredit fraudulent claims about Soviet military superiority; the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which assessed the effects of federal welfare policies; the Annual Survey of Child Nutrition and the Annual Housing Survey; bulletins on occupational health hazards; warnings about newly discovered toxic chemicals; public-health data formerly sent to local officials; and 50 major statistical programs on nursing homes, medical care, employment, and so on. An academic social scientist has complained that America’s social statistics, once the best in the world, have fallen behind those of several other Western countries. Of course, this makes it more difficult to document the effects of the Reagan Revolution on its victims. It also suggests that “cost-benefit principles” are largely a pretext for the administration’s massive subversion of the welfare, civil rights, environmental-protection, and occupational safety laws.

Even the Freedom of Information Act has been judged too costly. Never mind that the Act is one of the great legislative achievements of recent history, a monument to democracy and a blessing to journalists, scholars, and public-interest organizations. But, says Jonathan C. Rose, an assistant attorney general, “Freedom of information is not cost free. It is not an absolute good.” So the administration proposed “reforms” that made it vastly more expensive and difficult for citizens to avail themselves of the act.

But as a pretext for mischief, “cost-benefit” pales in comparison with “national security.” Executive Order 12356 allowed the reclassification of previously declassified information. Another executive order authorized the CIA, for the first time, to collect “foreign intelligence” within the United States by questioning American citizens. New Justice Department guidelines permit the FBI to collect “publicly avail able information” — i.e., to open a file — on any citizen for any reason. Under new Department of Energy regulations, any library that lends out unclassified published material that might contribute to “nuclear terrorism” can be fined $100,000. National Security Directive 84 requires all federal employees who have had any access, however brief, to classified information, at whatever level — this turns out to be more than 100,000 people — to submit for government censorship virtually everything they write about public affairs for the rest of their lives.

Most insidiously the Reagan administration twists the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Export Control Act of 1979 into a device for preventing criticism of its gigantic and wasteful military build-up. The Commerce Department has warned scientists that to discuss advanced technology at meetings where even a single foreign colleague or student is present maybe considered “exporting technical data without a license,” punishable by a $100,000 fine. A presidential executive order has created a new category of technical data (“vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, projects, or plans relating to the national security”) so huge and ill-defined that even private academic or commercial research may be subjected to official secrecy requirements. Shortly after the 1984 election, the Defense Department went still further, redefining “technical data” to include “contractor performance evaluation”— i.e., evidence of waste and fraud — and forbidding its dissemination outside the Pentagon. “The great Administration engine for squandering the public wealth,” Karp observes, “has at last become what it so desperately needs to be: a single, all-embracing secret of state.” And to enforce all this secrecy, the administration prosecutes whistle-blowers and leakers under the Espionage Act, which was passed in wartime and designed to pre vent stealing of vital secrets by a foreign enemy.

There is more, much more, in Karp’s dire chronicle. What it all adds up to is a counterrevolution. The real significance of American history is our achievement of an unprecedentedly open society: one in which government secrecy and censorship are presumptively illegitimate; in which political information is presumed innocent — and therefore available — until proven otherwise; in which the executive power is genuinely subordinate to that of popularly elected representatives. For all its failures, the United States has in these respects largely succeeded in living up to its democratic ideology. The Reagan administration has tried to destroy that tradition. It has created the most arrogant and unaccountable federal bureaucracy in American history. That it came to power in part through demagogic attacks on the alleged arrogance and unaccountability of that very bureaucracy only compounds its shame and hypocrisy.

This is not a conservative administration. It is radical, subversive, and authoritarian. Those of us — from left to right — who want to preserve this country’s republican tradition need to cultivate in our fellow citizens an abiding distrust of presidential power. In time, as the looming economic crisis can no longer be staved off, Americans may begin listening to criticism of centralized economic power as well. But the executive branch is the present danger.