Social & Domestic Issues

How HHS Bullies North Dakota Citizens

Those who work in what was once nobly known as the civil service — and what has degenerated into the “bureaucracy” — are required by law and ethics to be politically neutral.

Presidents and members of Congress, cabinet and sub-cabinet secretaries can voice opinions. Even judges are permitted (and often abuse) a privilege of obiter dicta. But career officials are supposed to implement the policies of the people and their elected officials, not publicly advocate what those policies should be.

To allow lobbying by federal officials, who after all have coercive authority over citizens, turns the civil service from the people’s servants into a taxpayer-funded advocacy organization that can suppress citizens’ opinions or activities it considers incorrect or threatening. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox politics, nationalism, religion, or any other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

So it is disturbing to learn that Thomas Sullivan, regional administrator for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), sent a letter last month to North Dakota state Sen. Tom Fisher urging the defeat of a proposed ballot initiative. North Dakota citizens are now collecting signatures for a popular measure providing for shared parenting for children of divorce. This would alleviate the problem of fatherless children and ease the impact of family breakup on both children and society. But these citizens must now contend with the opposition of not only the state’s powerful divorce lobby, but also a $47 billion agency of the $500 billion U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

A ballot initiative allows citizens to act when legislatures do not. To pressure a legislator to thwart their action — marshaling the full weight of the multi-billion dollar federal bureaucracy — is a serious obstruction of democracy and violation of federalism. (To his credit, Sen. Fisher has given no sign of responding to this pressure.) Sullivan insists categorically (and erroneously) that North Dakota will lose “all” money for welfare and child support enforcement if the people’s will prevails. He explicitly urges Sen. Fisher to take “whatever steps are necessary to ensure that initiated measures are not enacted.”

Advisory interpretations of regulations in response to legislative requests are one thing. But Sullivan’s letter reads more like a threat. Since he is interpreting the likely impact of a future measure under federal regulations — a speculative matter that is subject to final interpretation through administrative processes or courts — one would expect qualified language: words like “could” or “may.” Instead Sullivan issues what amounts to an ultimatum to North Dakota: Voting the initiative into law “will result in immediate suspension of all Federal payments for the State’s child support enforcement program.”

This is almost certainly not true. Leaving aside the fact that an advisory opinion is normally issued by the agency’s legal counsel, not an administrator, what is missing (and troubling) in Sullivan’s threat is the routine give-and-take when civil servants implement legislative actions. Sullivan ignores the possibility that regulations might be interpreted in ways that avoid triggering suspension of funds, let alone the option of a waiver. Many states have been out of compliance with child support regulations for different reasons for years; by some critical measures, all states are arguably out of compliance today. Yet these states have not lost any of their funding, let alone “all” of it and “immediately.”

Those who argue that federal funds are used for “extortion” could hardly find a clearer illustration. Kansas officials used precisely this language to describe related HHS regulations. “Under the guise of cracking down on so-called deadbeat dads, the Congress has required the states to carry out a massive and intrusive federal regulatory scheme by which personal data on all state citizens” is collected, the attorney general’s office charged in a federal suit. Echoing terms frequently used by fathers to describe coerced child support, one Kansas legislator called the federal directives “extortion,” and colleagues in neighboring Nebraska described them as “a form of blackmail.”

HHS, and specifically ACF, already embarrassed the Bush administration last year by paying journalists. Though conservatives were unfairly excoriated for transgressions that liberals have practiced for years, the point is that HHS is a constant temptation to corruption because it serves as an engine for placing large numbers of people on the federal payroll.

The head of ACF, Assistant Secretary Wade Horn, is justly famous for publicizing the terrible costs of fatherless children. The North Dakota initiative offers the first concrete hope of actually alleviating this crisis, with no cost to taxpayers (and savings for federal taxpayers). But his agency is now telling states that their fiscal solvency depends on broken families: no broken families, no federal money.

We have allowed both federal and state governments such a stake in family breakdown that the financing of state budgets has converted government into a family destruction machine.

Predictably, federal bureaucrats are now using taxpayers’ money to strong-arm citizens from democratic decisions that, by relieving a serious social problem, threaten to render the bureaucrats redundant. What is unusual in this federal official’s intervention into North Dakota politics is not that he did it but that he felt no need to disguise it.

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