A curious linguistic consequence of America’s constitutional structure is that the phrase “the government” means something quite different from what it does in a parliamentary democracy. In, say, Britain “the government” is transitory, created anew after each election by the victorious party or a coalition of parties. In the U.S., where the executive and legislative branches are separate, “the government” refers to permanent bureaucracies and other institutions, especially the departments and agencies of the executive branch. The president and his political leadership are “the administration.”
This semantic artifact has consequences for the way in which journalists describe the workings of the administrative state. By ascribing a decision or action to “the administration,” or to the president or one of his appointees, a reporter or commentator can fix political accountability. By attributing it to “the government” or to an agency, he can avoid laying political blame or giving credit.
Here’s an example. After an April explosion on a BP oil rig caused a massive spill, the New York Times investigated what it described, in a front-page story on May 14, as a regulatory failure:
The federal Minerals Management Service gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species — and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf.
The MMS is an office within the Interior Department — that is, part of the executive branch. The Times reported that the service had come into conflict with another executive-branch agency:
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is partly responsible for protecting endangered species and marine mammals. It has said on repeated occasions that drilling in the gulf affects these animals, but the minerals agency since January 2009 has approved at least three huge lease sales, 103 seismic blasting projects and 346 drilling plans. Agency records also show that permission for those projects and plans was granted without getting the permits required under federal law.
January 2009, of course, marked the beginning of the Obama administration — yet the name Obama never appeared in the story. The Times quoted Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, who blamed George W. Bush: “Under the previous administration, there was a pattern of suppressing science in decisions, and we are working very hard to change the culture and empower scientists in the Department of the Interior.”
This is a marked contrast with the way the Times covered the MMS during the previous administration. Here is the first paragraph of a March 1, 2006, story:
The Bush administration is scaling back on audits of energy companies that pay billions of dollars for leases to produce oil and gas on federal property, state officials said.
It may be true that the regulatory failures of the Minerals Management Service are the result of policies begun under “the previous administration.” But it is at the very least self-serving for the current administration’s spokesman to say so. And if the Bush administration’s policies were defective, surely it is to the Obama administration’s discredit that it took a disaster 15 months into Barack Obama’s presidency to prompt a change.
Another case in point is a Times editorial published the same day, titled “The Wavering War on AIDS.” The paper faulted the Obama administration for reducing the priority of anti-HIV efforts in developing countries, especially in Africa:
The global war on AIDS has racked up enormous successes over the past decade, most notably by providing drugs for millions of infected people in developing countries who would be doomed without this life-prolonging treatment….
Donor nations cite the economic crisis and tight budgets as reasons to slow their contributions to the global fight against AIDS. The Obama administration and many donor nations apparently believe that more lives could be saved by fighting other cheaper diseases, such as respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, malaria and measles….
The United States has been a leader in providing financing for the war on AIDS through bilateral programs and a multilateral global fund. Now, instead of a sharp increase in donations, as once planned, the administration proposes only a slight increase in bilateral financing and a modest reduction in its multilateral contribution.
Back in 2006, Bill Clinton spoke at a global summit on AIDS, where, according to a CNN transcript, he said: “I commend President Bush and the Congress for appropriating far more money than we could ever get back in my second term.” The Times editorial, however, never mentioned which administration was responsible for the “enormous successes” of “the past decade.” If you can’t say anything nice about someone, it must be George W. Bush.
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