Beyond these immediate concerns, there are a number of more serious, long-term management ailments. For years now, nearly every government agency has been operating without an appropriation -- that is, without a clear budget. As a result, managers don't know how big their operating budget will be from day to day or month to month, making it virtually impossible to innovate, add expertise, or recruit new talent. Now multiply that burden across a range of key agencies, departments, and bureaus -- from cybersecurity and aviation security to health research and drug approval. The problems with prioritization of embassy security have been well publicized since last September's attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya; they are deeply amplified by the lack of any budget certainty. Most efforts to fortify security and modernize embassies and consulates require extended contracts with contractors and others, something much harder to do without budget stability.
The problem goes beyond budgets and planning. The assault on federal workers is also making it more and more difficult to recruit people with the necessary expertise. Adding insult to injury, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill to block a 0.5 percent pay increase for federal employees, further diminishing the government's ability to attract talent. At best, the final version will be static pay (minus the days lost via furloughs from the sequester).
These measures are especially harmful in dynamic fields like cybersecurity, where America's edge depends on its ability to put its best and brightest to work. China, Russia, Iran, and even al Qaeda have ramped up their cyber-espionage activities, targeting America's defense establishment and power grids, as well as its businesses and financial institutions. They are employing an array of increasingly pernicious and sophisticated techniques -- cooked up by the best engineers and computer hackers that money can buy. But as this cyberwar ramps up, the U.S. government's budget impasse makes it more difficult to invest in expensive, cutting-edge computers and technical resources needed to combat these sophisticated probes and attacks on American businesses and U.S. government facilities and programs.
Meanwhile, as recruiting season nears at Stanford University, MIT, and other breeding grounds for technological talent, the government agencies charged with combating cyberthreats have to compete with Apple, Google, Intel, and others who offer fat pay and benefit packages -- while government recruiters can offer only budget cutbacks, forced furloughs, and near-permanent pay freezes. And the crisis is by no means confined to entry-level employees. The top federal managers, part of the elite Senior Executive Service -- the top career managers in all departments and agencies who are given enhanced recognition and responsibility to make government work -- are about to face a recruitment impasse of their own. Most are baby boomers at or near retirement age; replacing them with top-flight people under these conditions will be an equally steep challenge.
Whatever one thinks about the optimal size of government, making sure the government we have is functional should be a commonly shared goal. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go with the government you have, not the one you want. In the midst of dysfunctional tribal politics, and blinded by extreme ideology that is reinforced by talk radio, blogs, and emails, the use of brinkmanship has become the new norm -- one that is blinding us to the lasting damage it inflicts on the basic practice of governance.