03/29/2007 12:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Scandals that Ate the Galaxy

If it continues at its current pace, the ever-expanding scale of the Bush administration scandals threatens to consume not just Washington, but all matter and energy in this part of the galaxy. There are so many inquiries, yielding so much damaging, politically salient information, that right now we have a vast and unwieldy organism, a barely differentiated investigation incorporating the U.S. Attorney flap, the FBI's Patriot Act screwups, problems in Iraq, political shenanigans at the GSA and administration attempts to silence government scientists with anything to say on the subject of global climate change. And we don't know what Henry Waxman will come up with next week.

It was clear when the Democrats got subpoena power that the White House was just a piñata waiting to be struck. But I don't think anyone understood the scope of the investigatory challenge. Eve Fairbanks at TNR captures the moment well:

In the last couple of weeks, even in the minds of the lawmakers tasked with oversight, the administration's scandals and screw-ups have started to blur together into one Meta Screw-Up--a situation in which every procedural safeguard, institutional norm, and carefully designed plan seems to have "just melted into oblivion with this sloppy administration," as Senator Dianne Feinstein put it at the Mueller hearing.

But the notion of a scandal, or even a meta-scandal, does not capture what's really going on. A scandal implies something episodic; what we'e looking at is systemic.

Just a few weeks of probing has revealed how thoroughly the White House has undermined the basic functioning of the federal government. By definition, of course, politics touches everything in government (to varying degrees depending on who is president). But there have always been some bright lines between politics and policy, between politics and institutional prerogatives, between politics and custom and tradition. The idea of giving your U.S. attorneys some leeway to uphold the law, free of political interference, is one of those lines. So is the maintenance of professional class of civil servants, scientists and policy analysts who can draw on vast federal resources and produce intelligent insights into the problems we face.

These lines are a form of social compact. They assume it's in the nation's interest to have some rules that transcend partisan politics. To cite the most obvious example, we want assurances that prosecutions are not politically motivated. The Bush administration attitude has been, basically, bright lines and custom are for chumps. But these lines do have a practical political purpose: they assume power will change hands every so often, and that it's also in each party's interest to respect them. Abuse the rules, and when you're out of power you'll get screwed.

At least in modern times, the public's assumption has been that presidential administrations get to play a lot of politics, but they also have to do other stuff: address existing problems, anticipate future ones. In the Bush administration, these functions - the basic reason government exists in the first place - have become nearly vestigial. (Hurricane Katrina first exposed the true extent of this problem.) And that's very dangerous. It will take some time and effort to undo the damage - and, quite possibly, some of it cannot be undone.