What would William O. Douglas do?

Here's how the late Supreme Court justice and Washington native approached the challenge of fostering integrity in government.
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William O. Douglas.

Here's how the late Supreme Court justice and Washington native approached the challenge of fostering integrity in government.

With both presidential candidates calling for change, it's good to get a reminder of what government ought to look like. So many federal departments have been broken in recent years and have been ridden with cronyism (FEMA) partisanship (the Justice Department) and scandal (Interior Department), that we've become used to seeing a governing style of foxes watching hen houses. Now, with a major financial crisis that has even Wall Streeters and Republicans calling for greater regulation, what is the model for reform?

While there are many good people in public service, fish do rot from the head down, and much of the recent blame goes to George W. Bush for appointing industry lobbyists to "regulate" or "watchdog" their former bosses and current friends. This has created corrosive climates. It's been surprising to me that the Minerals Management Service debacle has not gotten more attention since it goes to the heart of both how government has been run (or not) even in critical areas, like energy, and to the need for major reform. The MMS, based in Denver, has been failing to collect royalties due the government from private industry and has been operating with what investigators call a "a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity." According to The New York Times:

The report says that eight officials in the royalty program accepted gifts from energy companies whose value exceeded limits set by ethics rules – including golf, ski and paintball outings; meals and drinks; and tickets to a Toby Keith concert, a Houston Texans football game and a Colorado Rockies baseball game.

The investigation also concluded that several of the officials "frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives."

Coke, sex, and ripping off taxpayers — I'm sorry, but I find this much more interesting than hypothetical pigs and whether they wear lipstick.

I happen to be reading the memoirs of Washington's own William O. Douglas, the Yakima-bred Supreme Court justice known for his strong civil libertarian and environmental views. But before he was appointed to the court in 1939 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was one of a slew of young lawyers FDR brought to Washington, D.C., to run the alphabet-soup of New Deal agencies. Douglas stuck out for his dogged independence — he was no yes-man to FDR and the Democrats, but he had the support of "the Boss" (and was a poker buddy) nevertheless. His assignment was to run the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and institute reforms in the system — or lack thereof — that helped bring on the collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression.

Granted, memoirs are self-serving, but throughout Douglas' book about the years leading up to his court career, Go East, Young Man, Douglas makes observations about the inner workings of government that are very frank and opinionated, and bipartisan in their criticisms. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Douglas' career was his ability to consult and befriend people who were ideologically at the opposite end of the spectrum from himself, and his willingness to judge honestly those liberals who failed to meet the character test in public service. He was no moralist, but he did expect integrity regardless of ideology. He was also a critic of aspects of the New Deal itself, and suggested that all new federal agencies be sunseted. FDR did not take him up on that.

Douglas remarks on aspects of government culture that he observed as having changed between the 1930s, when he was a New Dealer, and the '70s, when he watched scandals like Watergate unfold. As as an expert in corporate law, he knew the difficulties in trying to craft genuine oversight amid the pressures toward compromise and corruption. So I was especially struck by the following passage about the SEC and how it contrasts sharply with our sense of how government works these days. To me, it also suggests a model for how things should be if either Sens. John McCain or Barrack Obama are serious about reform. Douglas writes:

We were rich in talent at the SEC; and the energies of the men seemed endless. We would all work until six, take two hours out for dinner, be back at eight and work until midnight or later, reporting by nine o'clock the next morning for another day.

The SEC had a staff of eighteen hundred men and women, and I was proud of them all, There were no "fixers" on the staff, and if one was suspected, he was quietly dropped. These were honest, idealistic, hardworking, and loyal men and women to the nth degree.

The industry never took them to lunch or dinner, all invitations by industry-connected people to spend weekends on yachts off Long Island or elsewhere were politely turned down. We were not holier-than-thou; we simply did not desire to get entangled in social affairs with those we were regulating, and thus unwittingly blunt the edges of the law. In my five years at the SEC only one man was dismissed, not because he had taken a bribe but because he exuded his susceptibility.

The SEC early became quite popular in government circles. We had of course plenty of antagonists, but no taint of unethical conduct ever touched it, nor did partisan politics motivate it, Above all else, the commission's performance was highly professional. Forty years after the SEC was established it still had the best professional staff of any agency in Washington. And it was not until 1973 that the first whiff of scandal touched it.

No sex, coke, or Toby Keith tickets. Oversight without partisanship, fear, or favor. Competent, professional employees. No Jack Abramoffs or Brownies to help run the show. No culture of revenge. Is such a government even possible?

One thing is clear. What Douglas experienced at the SEC would not have happened without a boss who tolerated and encouraged such independence. Not that FDR didn't make political appointments or decisions, but he also knew the value of solving the nation's multiple crises by delegating to honest, top-notch, independent people. One of the biggest cultural challenges McCain or Obama will have to address is changing the perception that Washington is a pastry cart at which pigs of all kinds can feed.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.