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The Unintended Lessons Mitt Romney (and the Rest of Us) Could Learn from George Romney

Whoever succeeds George W. Bush will have plenty of messes to clean up.  One crucial issue to address is the lack of coordination within and between federal agencies.  Although not a sexy, headline-grabbing issue, the obvious weaknesses in counterterrorism and disaster preparedness have made its importance unmistakable.  If Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wins the presidential race and seeks to improve the performance of federal agencies, he will have some family history from which to learn.

Mitt Romney’s father, George, first achieved prominence as Governor of Michigan and later as a presidential aspirant.  (Mitt’s mother, Lenore, made an unsuccessful run for a U.S. Senate seat.)  His frontrunner status for the 1968 Republican nomination evaporated after he claimed that his earlier endorsement of the Vietnam War came because U.S. officials overseas had “brainwashed” him.  But it his experience as HUD secretary from 1969 to 1973 that may offer the most valuable lessons for Mitt and, for that matter, other aspiring chief executives. 

President Nixon appointed Romney to be HUD Secretary shortly after passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which called on the agency to police housing discrimination, and the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, which directed HUD to spur enormous increases in subsidized housing.  Romney did not dampen expectations.  His exposure to “brainwashing” notwithstanding, Romney appeared to operate with a clear mind as HUD secretary.  In a January 1970 speech, he asserted: “The most explosive threat to our nation is the confrontation between the poor and the minority groups who are concentrated in the central cities, and the middle income and affluent who live in the surrounding and separate communities.  This confrontation is divisive.  It is explosive.  It must be resolved.”  In his favor, Romney’s most controversial messages were smoothed by his personal magnetism.  As one congressional staffer commented, “when it comes to proselytizing, no one is better at it than George Romney.  He’s a super-salesman and he’s the perfect kind of guy to be selling something as controversial as [suburban integration]--even if you disagree with what George Romney might be telling you, you would never think that he was anything other than a solid all-America type.” 

Early on, Romney believed that HUD could use its control over enormous housing subsidies to convince (or compel) housing developers to encourage integration in their site and tenant selection decisions.  Employees in HUD’s Equal Opportunity office were enthusiastic advocates of housing integration.  Staffers responsible for housing production, however, had several reasons to ignore the mandate for fair housing: (1) There was no institutional mechanism compelling them to address fair housing concerns in their funding decisions; (2) Ultimately, their superiors would rate their job performance on the volume of applications for housing subsidies that they processed, not the degree of desegregation they helped to create; and (3) Many of these employees had been working for federal housing agencies for years, and had little interest in disrupting cozy relationships with their friends in the housing industry.

In the final analysis, what George Romney lacked as HUD Secretary was not the desire to foster change, particularly in the urgent area of desegregation.  Instead, it was Romney’s inability to steer this disjointed and unwieldy agency that helped to assure that the dual goals of desegregation and massive housing production would remain unfulfilled.  This task would have been extremely difficult even for someone who had entered the job with some background in housing, or in running a massive federal bureaucracy.  Romney, with neither of these experiences to draw upon, was in over his head.

To make matters worse, Romney never saw eye to eye with President Nixon.  As early as March 1970, top White House staffers were plotting to oust him.  Attorney General John Mitchell told Romney that he should resign if he was  unwilling to follow administration policies on housing desegregation.  “What the hell is Administration policy?” Romney retorted. “It changes from day to day and hour to hour.”

Surprisingly, Romney survived Nixon’s first term, and—despite ham-handed implementation of housing desegregation initiatives—changes to exclusionary housing patterns in the suburbs still remained possible throughout Nixon’s first term. Though Nixon never supported federally directed desegregation in housing and schools, he held office at a time when federal courts were interpreting civil rights statutes to require aggressive, pro-integrative action by federal and local governments.  Powerless to stop the judiciary, Nixon worked to avoid public blame for the school desegregation controversies that ignited throughout his first term. He feared that the courts were beginning to “force” housing desegregation as well.     

In this area, however, the President found a way out.  Scandals in the Federal Housing Administration, which was a part of HUD, provided the opening.  Though the scandals in the FHA’s inner-city programs had nothing to do with HUD’s suburban integration efforts, Nixon froze all housing funding in January 1973, effectively killing any remaining momentum (read: financial leverage) for HUD to spur housing desegregation.

So what are the lessons for Mitt and the other presidential hopefuls?  For starters, if you want an effective federal agency, appoint someone who shares your vision for that agency, and has some expertise in the areas under the agency’s purview.  Most importantly, the department secretary and the White House should agree on what the major priorities of the agency are.  Congress loves to heap additional responsibilities on agencies, without commensurate increases in funding.  The only missions with a real chance of success are those near the top of the priority list.  For those missions, agency employees must be convinced that their careers will benefit if they help in achieving agency goals.  All too often, overall agency goals and individual employee incentives point in opposite directions.

I do not expect that the 2008 presidential candidates will devote a lot of campaign time to the competent, efficient management of government agencies.  But once the new chief executive moves into the White House, he or she would be well-advised to devote some attention to this area.  The victims of Hurricane Katrina who felt betrayed by FEMA’s response would surely affirm the wisdom of such an effort.