Contending With a World of Disorder

By Craig R. McKinley

I have frequently criticized the lack of “regular order” that has come to characterize our governmental processes and witnessed firsthand the difficulties that result when we attempt to execute a defense budget that was not appropriated on time, leaving the service chiefs and others in the Pentagon charged with paying the bills, and wrestling with the uncertainties and limitations that result from continuing resolutions.  

We are now on a third generation of service chiefs who have never had a budget passed on time.

My past comments focused on Congress, which has a budget and management process that is commonly described as “regular order.” But I have come to believe that the actual problem is much wider. We seem to be living through, and trying to deal with, an absence of “regular order” everywhere — in government, in society and in the international environment. Perhaps we have entered a global era when the lack of regular order anywhere means we are in a period of low-level chaos. This could be dangerous.

Within our legislative branch, we have seen considerable turnover. Since 2008, when partisan sentiments began to escalate, about 60 percent of House seats have been occupied by new members. Currently, half have served for less than eight years, meaning that we have seen the historical anomaly of freshmen representatives sitting on the appropriations committee, a key assignment that once took many years to secure. There are fewer members who have ever experienced regular order, and for them the current conditions are normal.

On the Senate side, there has also been a large turnover since 2008 and half of senators have served one term or less. The long-standing budget stability in the Senate that was provided by venerable veterans such as Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is long gone, and along with them considerable institutional knowledge and respect for the old norms. This is reflected in the recent waiver of the 60-vote standard in approving the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.

In the executive branch, we have a new administration that came into office pledging to make significant changes to government processes with which it was largely unfamiliar. Its foundational assumption was that experience in business offered a high degree of positive transference to managing government. In numerous areas, that assumption is currently being tested.

The Trump administration has just begun the inevitable engagement in budget conflicts regarding the debt limit, sequestration and budget caps. However this plays out, we must recognize that we have an administration with considerably less knowledge than ever before regarding regular order.

We may be also experiencing a breakdown of regular order in the international environment. Richard Haass, president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, has a new book out, A World in Disarray. The title says it all. Across the globe we see a significant erosion of the structures of global order, some dating back a century ago to the end of World War I. This would include the state structure in the Middle East, which is under obvious pressure, to the condition of the NATO alliance, where there is a degree of uncertainty regarding future missions and new vulnerabilities following its expansion into Eastern Europe. This includes the revisionist actions of Russia and the global aspirations of China.

Lastly, there is the change to regular order we are seeing in society. Our national demographics are changing and along with them old patterns of behavior, including where we live, how we live and where we receive our news.

With mobile devices, shopping patterns are changing and the need for personal social interaction is declining. Perhaps more significant is the access to information. Social media makes it quick and easy, but that same revolutionary medium also offers the chance for misinformation to quickly displace information, for the “fake” to overwhelm the “real.” As one social observer noted years ago, it’s less important what people “know” than what they “believe.”

What we have known as “regular order” may be slipping into the past, in government, in the international environment and in society itself. Many of us may call for the return of something called “regular order,” but the question is whether anyone recalls what that condition actually means.

We are obviously in a world of rapid change. Globalization has come to economic reality, and reality television has come to government. In so many areas, what seems to be “disorder” is replacing “order.”  

Managing order has always been challenging; managing disorder is very likely infeasible. Yet that seems to be where we are headed.

My experience and intuition suggests that we need to think carefully about the forces now at work, and do what we can to strengthen rather than weaken the major institutions that have always done the most to promote and provide regular order.  

This will be my last column as CEO, as my highly qualified and able replacement arrives in June. Retired Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, a close friend of mine from our days in the Air Force, will be the new CEO at the National Defense Industrial Association and I want to wish him and his family the best in this transition. We are in very good hands. 

My thanks to the corporate members, individual members, chapters and divisions for their outstanding support of this enterprise. To the board of directors, trustees, and our past chairman, current board chair and executive committee, thanks for the support and governance to maintain such an outstanding organization. 

And finally to the dedicated staff who work tirelessly to make NDIA the highly efficient and effective team that it is — my gratitude for a job well done.  

Topics: Budget, Business Trends, Defense Department