The recently-passed federal budget is incontrovertible evidence that the "swamp" has not been drained. And let's be realistic; the swamp is simply too vast and too, well … swampy, to be converted into habitable land by a single administration. But if mission statements are a reliable guide, we have reason to hope that the domain of the swamp rats (aka Washington bureaucrats) may be shrinking.
A recent article by Christine Emba bemoaned recent edits – some proposed, some already final – to the mission of certain administrative agencies. Let's evaluate these according to the proper purpose of government: to secure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- Department of Housing and Urban Development. Old mission statement: "to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD is working to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination, and transform the way HUD does business."Proposed new mission statement: "to ensure Americans have access to fair, affordable housing and opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency, thereby strengthening our communities and nation."
It's nice that a federal agency would want to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities. At least until you really think about it. The idea of government creating any kind of community is actually deeply troubling. People create communities. Government – legitimate government, anyway – serves the communities we create, and it does so in the way we dictate.
This may seem like nitpicking, but in a day and age where many Americans actually seem to believe that government is the source of our well-being, provider of our needs and the grantor of our rights, it is a distinction we cannot afford to gloss over.
The new proposed mission statement is a major improvement, for sure. It shifts the agency's focus on removing barriers to access rather than "creating" community. It rightly focuses on pointing citizens toward self-sufficiency as the key to flourishing.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Old mission statement: "secures America's promise as a nation of immigrants by uniting families, providing refuge, fostering economic prosperity, promoting citizenship, and protecting our nation."New mission statement: "administers the nation's lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values."
The old statement was not particularly objectionable, but the new statement is a significant improvement, for one simple reason: it emphasizes the centrality of the rule of law to America's immigration system. As President Bill Clinton aptly observed, "We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws."
The rule of law is central to America's greatness, because it is the cornerstone of liberty. Our government cannot "secure America's promise" by sacrificing the rule of law, because the rule of law is essential to that promise.
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Old mission statement: "helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives."New mission statement: "helps consumer finance markets work by regularly identifying and addressing outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome regulations, by making rules more effective, by consistently enforcing federal consumer financial law, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives."
The key difference between the old and new mission statements here is the new focus on eliminating outdated, unnecessary, unduly burdensome regulations. We should congratulate the leaders of this agency for recognizing that when it comes to administrative regulations, less is more. Tangles of red tape seldom provide any substantive benefit to anyone, but they are incredibly effective at smothering the sparks of entrepreneurial spirit that fuel a robust economy.
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For those of us who want to see the swamp drained, there is a long, difficult road ahead. It will require much more than any single administration can accomplish. Thanks to judicial activism that has damaged the balance of power prescribed by the Constitution, it will require constitutional repairs.
But positive shifts in bureaucracy's mission statements are a hopeful sign, because words do matter. The words of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, cast the broad vision of individual liberty that anchors our republic. Today, efforts to narrow the mission of our federal agencies reflect the continued vitality of that broad vision of liberty.