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Posted at 11:39 AM ET, 01/20/2011

Spirit of America and the curse of government bureaucracy

By Jennifer Rubin

There are moments when you realize just how anti-common sense the government can be. In a must-read column, Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal tells the story of the Spirit of America, a wonderful organization founded in 2004 to provide troops with support from home:

First in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, they've continued to fill requests from commanders on the ground for the sort of stuff--sewing machines, blankets, radios, soccer balls--that is too small to register with the Pentagon's procurement bureaucracies but matters in terms of creating trust between the troops and local villagers.

Then the government stepped in:

The lawyers said in June that what Spirit of America had been doing--sending goods into the war zone through battalion commanders--could be defined as a "gift" to the commanders under current ethics rules. Spirit of America was dead in the water.

Fortunately, Spirit of America was founded by a software magnate with the connections and money to hire the very best lawyers -- amazingly, to convince the Pentagon to let Americans help men and women risking their lives for our country. As Henninger points out, "It also helped that Spirit of America's work in Iraq had earned the support of Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, currently head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Joe Dunford, the Marines' No. 2 officer. Gen. Mattis said that if the program fit within the Pentagon's guidelines, his lawyers would write it into a workable regulation."

Spirit of America is now back in business, "on the ground with the Marines in Helmand Province." Thank goodness.

It is, of course, "hard not to note the irony of needing government at the highest level to green-light a good idea at the lowest level. That, I'm afraid, is the story of government in our time." The undue, sometimes blind faith in government and in the maze of regulations needed to order the citizenry about that the left exhibits needs to be tempered by the realization that large bureaucracies, however well intentioned, easily become irrational and inflexible, doing more harm than good. Better, in many cases, to let the "Armies of Compassion" do their best. Mammoth government structures that are supposed to be so clever, so ingenious and so all-knowing as to outperform ordinary citizens and the free market hardly ever are.

By Jennifer Rubin  | January 20, 2011; 11:39 AM ET
Categories:  National Security  
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Instead of blaming some government "bureaucrats" for enforcing the law, which is what they're supposed to be doing in this case Jennifer, why don't you call on Congress to change the law regarding the receipt of gifts by government employees?

Posted by: asterix9t9 | January 20, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

You are absolutely right in many instances, but government entities, with the right regulations (yes, always iffy, getting them right) and allowance for INPUT FROM CITIZENS, can be very effective. And have you ever tried to contact you insurance company to make a complaint about their service and give suggestions? It's the nature of any large organization to have those at the top manage without sufficient input from the bottom. Sigh.

Posted by: dblue | January 20, 2011 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Kind of a dumb controversy, as the recipient of these gifts aren't the commanders, but the troops and villagers.

All one need do is interpret these gifts as a "morale fund", and ship away. There's no law against morale, is there?

It's worth codifying policy to prevent abuse, but this is a worthy cause.

Posted by: Benson | January 20, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Bureaucracy and blindly writing/following rules and regulations is not the exclusive providence of liberals or the government.

Anyone that has ever tried to settle a billing dispute with a telephone company or a large bank has run into the wall of bureaucratic group-think.

Posted by: scooper1976 | January 20, 2011 1:51 PM | Report abuse

With regard to the point raised by asterix9t9, turning the focus on Congress for an overly bureaucratic, lacking-in-common-sense approach USED to make sense. No longer.

With Congress passing many laws that are not specific, but just vague statements of goals and objectives, it is left to the regulators in the Executive branch to actually lay out the details, and then to interpret and further refine the regulations as specific cases arise. I can't say whether DOJ or DOD regulations caught Spirit of America in the bureaucratic web in this example, but my guess is that they did.

I am wistful for the old days, when a law was a law and you didn't need a special office with an assistant undersecretary, 15 staff members, and a support contractor to tell the public what the law really said. Alas, I'm afraid those days are gone forever.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | January 20, 2011 1:58 PM | Report abuse

"Mammoth government structures that are supposed to be so clever, so ingenious and so all-knowing as to outperform ordinary citizens and the free market hardly ever are."

Ohh yeah, like mammoth concentrations of corporate capital and free markets without government regulation are not as onerous and inflexible as the government bureaucracy.

This article is written more from the perspective of a true believing ideologue than from reality.

Posted by: captn_ahab | January 20, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Drivel, as usual, from Ms. Rubin.

Posted by: jimsteinberg1 | January 20, 2011 2:06 PM | Report abuse

The heinous rule Jennifer is so glad was changed was likely established to prevent the loss of business to government contractors. If someone is donating sewing machines someone else is not selling them. It is the same reason we make very little use of the prison population. If they paint a building or do other meaningful work it denies a contractor the business. It is not just graft that is targeted. It is also to force government to buy everything. And that is a right wing idea, Jennifer.

Posted by: chucko2 | January 20, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

The laws in place that regulate the receipt of goods by government employees (civilian and military) are meant to protect against bribery and corruption and to ensure transparency. Perhaps the application of the law in this case was not strictly in keeping with the spirit of the original law; however, this is not a case of government gone awry because of its large size or supposed all-knowingness, but rather of government employees doing their best to operate within the laws with which they are provided. That the group has been allowed to resume their activities suggests that these government forces recognized that the General's arguments and the approach had merit and did not violate the ethics rules, but the fact that the examination of whether or not a violation occurred suggests that government is working, rather than not. Further, at the end of your commentary, you seem to derisively suggest that the free market is a better provider of services. However, one of the largest (if not the largest) government entity is that of our military force. Your comments seem to undermine your argument of supporting our troops by, in fact, arguing against their existence as a government entity. I assume you are not suggesting that there should be no government? And that laws against bribery should not exist AND be enforced? Clearly there is a need for the services being offered by Spirit of America, and perhaps the Pentagon was initially overzealous in their application of the gift rule, but the argument you proceed to make does not seem grounded in reality - even in a tempered reading of it.

Posted by: lasaul11 | January 20, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Government officials, including US troops, are forbidden by law from accepting gifts larger than $10 in value (an amount that does not adjust for inflation). Receiving a sewing machine would be considered a bribe and the accepting official, even a lowly Army Private, would be imprisoned for that offense.

It's not inefficiency that's the problem. It's grandstanding politicians who use a blunt axe to prevent corruption and harm a lot of other efforts in the process.

Posted by: AxelDC | January 20, 2011 2:35 PM | Report abuse

"Instead of blaming some government "bureaucrats" for enforcing the law, which is what they're supposed to be doing in this case Jennifer, why don't you call on Congress to change the law regarding the receipt of gifts by government employees?"


She doesn't do that because that would be, "too much like right". Jennifer is not concerned with the help that Spirit of America gives, she's only concerned with spinning and warping the truth to make it seem like the "left" and its "big government" tried to stop the very necessary work done by the Spirit of America.

Forget the truth that's found in the details OR actually trying to make real change for the better....her only concern is making the current administration look bad. This only serves to show how shallow of a human being Jennifer Rubin really perfectly "conservative" of her.

Posted by: massmedia77 | January 20, 2011 2:36 PM | Report abuse

More of the usual right-wing "government is evil" drivel. More complainig without an idea.

Posted by: jckdoors | January 20, 2011 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I think that the Free Market is telling Rubin that there is very little interest in her opinions. I have none,but I do have some interest in comments by my colleagues Adam,Inagua,544946,and skipsailing. I just want to make it clear that Rubin is as irrelevant to me as she is to the vast majority of WAPO readers and comment makers.

Posted by: rcaruth | January 20, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

She's blasting government run programs while at the same time talking about the military, one of the most efficient, in terms of action, government run groups in the world.

Posted by: pathfinder12 | January 20, 2011 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see Rubin commenting on the idiocy of rightwingnuts in Congress continually complaining about the IRS enforcing laws that are written by..wait for it...Congress.

Posted by: Observer691 | January 20, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Step back for a moment and recognize all the blame we assess while nothing, either great or calamitous, occurs without great participation by we the many, even if our greatest participation is failure to react. Considering that nothing significant occurs without us shouldn't we begin participating better?
Think about all the warnings we've received about excessive risk in financials, recall that we've empowered agencies to police such risk and ask ourselves who might have stood in the way of policement as it surely wasn't.
Recognize that our unbalanced trade stands in the way of domestic economic growth, recall that we've empowered folks to ensure balance and ask why we continue to create more economic growth abroad than here.
Yes, industry and investors have right to seek maximum profit and and don't they still rely on us as best customers? If we personally redirect our daily spending to benefit the home front they won't fail to seek benefit from such and will redirect more of their economic activities here.
No, we've not lost opportunity to achieve the American dream as it's been wrested from us and we can wrest it back.
Yes, campaign funding reform is necessary to prevent government indebted to large contributors and we can achieve such even if choosing public campaign funding.
Isn't our future still in our own hands and shouldn't we recognize having the ability and the power to make needed change?

Posted by: reenie10 | January 20, 2011 3:15 PM | Report abuse

She's blasting government run programs while at the same time talking about the military, one of the most efficient, in terms of action, government run groups in the world.
Posted by: pathfinder12

In addition to not cutting the military,I don't think JR is interested in cutting Police,firefighters,FBI,Homeland Security, the CIA,or aid to Israel. I do believe that medical care to the veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars is on the block,as well as all non-Israeli foreign aid as well as all of the "safety nets". Jennifer's ideas on cutting government expenses will never be across the board;they are triaged by her strange ideology,not economics.

Posted by: rcaruth | January 20, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I spent over a year fighting with Comcast trying to get them to send my refund to the correct address. they failed time after time.

I complained to the FCC and the situation was resolved with a handwritten letter of apology from Verizon.

The private model is not with out flaws and sometimes citizens need the government to step in and defend us.

Posted by: shadow27 | January 20, 2011 3:32 PM | Report abuse

How about the curse of right-wing harpies employed by the Washington Post to constantly shill for the Koch brothers and
Rupert Murdoch, the two biggest threats to the American way of life since that little German fella and his Japanase and Italian BFFs?

Posted by: nicekid | January 20, 2011 3:35 PM | Report abuse

I say total anarchy!!!!!!!!

Posted by: danw1 | January 20, 2011 3:44 PM | Report abuse

All it would take for me to start voting Republican,is one logical proposition. Legalize Drugs, as we do alchohol,and apply the profits to our deficits. (See WFB Jr on Drug Legalization) We lower our governmental expenses/what percentage of prison inmates are there for Drug offenses?),and we increase our revenue by hundreds of billions.

Posted by: rcaruth | January 20, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse

The "bureaucracy" you claim caused this problem was the result of ethics rules that people outside the government claimed were needed to keep us civil servants in line. (We're all getting rich working for Uncle Sam you know.) When the ethics rules cause you as much grief as they cause us, you claim that's our fault too.

Posted by: fsmt1760 | January 20, 2011 4:09 PM | Report abuse

A good step, Jennifer, but you need to go further. Rigid rules are a pain that ALL federal employees have to endure.

Here's an example. A few years ago, we had a travel office. If you had to travel, you'd put in a request to them and they'd work it out. We were then told that we'd have to follow the rest of the Department and use a confusing web-based system that has some glitches. Someone put it well. The entire purpose appeared to be to take work done by GS7s and 8s and make 13s and 14s do it. The work still has to be done, but now it's being done by someone who has a much higher hourly cost. Even worse, most folks travel only a few times a year, so they're rusty and it probably takes at least twice as long. The work needs to be done, but rigid rules have quadrupled the effective cost.

Many such rules originate in someone doing a shady act and then everyone having to jump through another hoop.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 20, 2011 4:41 PM | Report abuse

"She's blasting government run programs while at the same time talking about the military, one of the most efficient, in terms of action, government run groups in the world."

Are you joking? Financially speaking, the military is one of the WORST run Government Program. They can't even properly account for their expenses.

Posted by: BradG | January 20, 2011 5:40 PM | Report abuse

"Mammoth government structures that are supposed to be so clever, so ingenious and so all-knowing as to outperform ordinary citizens and the free market hardly ever are."

By this logic, we should abolish the Pentagon and put ordinary citizens and the free market in charge of national security.

Posted by: jondnorton | January 21, 2011 6:48 AM | Report abuse

Since the most recent wars have been financed through Emergency War Supplementals and the costs are forecast by Professor Stiglitz to exceed $3 trillion and military spending is $1 trillion on an yearly basis now, how is the warmongering to be paid for with so much of the national debt being a direct consequence of Cold War expenditures plus all of the invasions, bombings, and occupations over the past sixty years?

Posted by: Mackdawg1 | January 21, 2011 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Blaming the public sector element of the military-industrial complex offers no solution and amounts to nothing constructive with so much windbaggery and whining. If you really don't like the Pentagon but you continue to love all the wars, then why don't you go ahead and privatize the entire military for those functions which haven't already been outsourced to Blackwater?

Posted by: Mackdawg1 | January 21, 2011 4:07 PM | Report abuse

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