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The federal government is a convenient villain in many campaigns. But who can fairly be labeled a government bureaucrat? That's what we wondered as we watched an ad placed by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans.
The ad targets Chad Causey, a Democrat who is running to succeed the man who was until recently his boss -- retiring Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark. Here's the narration:
"Washington, D.C. -- that's where Chad Causey lived and worked until very recently. He was a Washington, D.C., bureaucrat. Causey left the D.C. payroll and came straight to Arkansas to become a politician himself. Now guess who's helping fund Chad Causey's campaign? You guessed it - Washington, D.C., liberal labor unions and Nancy Pelosi's team. Remember, you can't spell Chad Causey without 'D.C.'"
We were immediately struck by the ad's use of the term "bureaucrat." Could a former Congressional aide really be described as a bureaucrat?
We first looked up Causey's background and found his government work has been exclusively in the legislative branch. According to an Associated Press biography, Causey was born in Jonesboro, Ark. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas and a law degree from Catholic University in Washington. He spent 10 years with Berry, from 2001 to 2010, until Berry announced his retirement, and Causey became a candidate to succeed him. During his time with Berry, Causey served as a field representative, a legislative assistant, legislative director and district director. Starting in 2006, he served as Berry's chief of staff.
Now, let's go to the dictionaries. We first looked at the one sitting on our desk, Webster's New World Dictionary, third college edition. It defines "bureaucrat" as "an official in a bureaucracy, especially one who follows a routine in a mechanical, unimaginative way, insisting on proper forms, petty rules, etc." It defines "bureaucracy" as "the administration of government through departments and subdivisions managed by sets of appointed officials following an inflexible routine" or "the concentration of authority in a complex structure of administrative bureaus."
We then turned to Safire's Political Dictionary, a trenchant glossary written by the late William Safire, the former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and longtime New York Times columnist. It calls bureaucracy "administrative agencies of government ... manned for the most part by career personnel and characterized by rigid adherence to rules and established procedure; almost always used in a derogatory sense. ... King or president, mayor or mandarin, every ruler needs help running things. The first echelon below the top has typically been a kind of aristocracy, whether by appointment, heredity or election. Below that comes the civil service, or bureaucracy."
To us, the discussion of "departments," "subdivisions," "administrative bureaus," "administrative agencies" and supreme leaders of various types sounds a lot more like the executive branch than Congress.
Experts we spoke to agreed with us.
"'Bureaucrat' is not an official term, but it is commonly applied to executive branch civil service employees, rather than to the staff of the legislative or judicial branches," said Senate historian Donald Ritchie. Stephen Hess, a scholar at the centrist-to-liberal Brookings Institution who once worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, said he's "never heard a congressional staffer referred to as a bureaucrat."
Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institue, agrees. "If one uses the technical definition of bureaucrat, ... it is someone appointed for a position because of his or her specific, technical qualifications, in a job that can be for a career," Ornstein said. "A congressional staff member, often appointed for reasons that have little to do with 'technical expertise' and in a job that can disappear every two years, would not meet that definition. A broader definition -- someone who is a cog in an organization -- could be stretched to fit, especially for a chief of staff. But the term here is being used not as a descriptive but as an epithet."
Jock Friedly, whose website Legistorm was cited on screen as the source of the "bureaucrat" description, also objects. Legistorm is a database that allows users to look up publicly available information about Congressional staffers, including their salaries.
"To call Chad Causey a ‘D.C. bureaucrat’ might mislead some viewers," Friedly said. "The term ‘bureaucrat’ is usually reserved for an official working for the executive branch, and often used derogatorily to imply someone devoted to enforcing proper procedures at the expense of sensible results. Instead, Causey worked for congressional offices, which are usually -- for better or worse -- much more entrepreneurial in their approach of focusing on results more than the process."
In fact, two of the positions that Causey held -- field representative and district director -- are based in the lawmaker's home district, not in Washington. Serving as chief of staff, meanwhile, is a job based in D.C. that requires frequent travel to the district. The other two positions mentioned -- legislative assistant and legislative director -- typically are based in Washington.
When we contacted the NRCC, a spokesman pointed us to two online dictionary entries. He pointed out that the Merriam-Webster site defines "bureaucrat" as "a member of a bureaucracy" and, in turn, "bureaucracy" as "a body of non-elective government officials."
Meanwhile, the spokesman also cited "The Growth of Congressional Staffs," an academic paper published in 1975 in the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science by Harrison W. Fox Jr. and Susan Webb Hammond. In the paper, the authors discuss the expanding size of Congress' personal, committee and related staff, calling it "a growing Congressional bureaucracy."
But we don't think their passing use of the phrase "bureaucracy" justifies the NRCC's decision to use the word to describe Causey. (We wanted to ask Hammond, who's now retired from her job as a professor at American University, if she thought that was a valid justification for calling Causey a bureaucrat, but we were unable to reach her. We weren't able to track down Fox.)
The NRCC does have a point that Causey has spent a lot of time in D.C., and specifically working for Congress, an institution that isn't so popular these days. (The RealClearPolitics average of recent congressional job approval polls shows 21 percent approval and 72 percent disapproval.) In general, we have no quarrel with candidates who try to portray their opponents as out of touch with constituents -- it's a venerable tradition in electoral politics.
"It’s entirely fair to say he is a D.C. insider," said Friedly of Legistorm. "As a decade-long congressional staffer, he has played the political game from the inside for a lot longer than most staffers remain in that position. And, as someone with experience on the Appropriations Committee, Causey has had the potential for not-inconsiderable influence on how Washington spends taxpayer dollars."
Even so, notwithstanding the NRCC's efforts to find scholarly precedent, we feel that being a Washington insider is not the same thing as being a "bureaucrat." And we agree with Ornstein that a legislative employee is not a bureaucrat. So we rate the statement False.
National Republican Congressional Committee, "You Can't Spell Chad Causey Without D.C." (television ad), Oct. 3, 2010
Chad Causey for Congress, biography web page, accessed Oct. 5, 2010
Associated Press, election guide web page for Chad Causey, accessed Oct. 5, 2010
William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (Ballantine Books), 1980 edition
Webster's New World Dictionary, third college edition
Merriam-Webster online dictionary, definitions of "bureaucrat" and "bureaucracy," accessed Oct. 5, 2010
Harrison W. Fox Jr. and Susan Webb Hammond, "The Growth of Congressional Staffs" (first page of a paper in the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science), 1975
RealClearPolitics, archive for congressional approval rating polls, accessed Oct. 5, 2010
E-mail interview with Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Oct. 5, 2010
E-mail interview with Jock Friedly, founder of Legistorm, Oct. 5, 2010
E-mail interview with Donald Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate, Oct. 5, 2010
E-mail interview with Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, Oct. 5, 2010
E-mail interview with Andy Sere, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Oct. 5, 2010
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