Mission Creep: A Lot Like Kudzu

Posted on April 6, 2014 by


If you have lived in or visited the South, you know about Kudzu, the weed that spreads along the ground in a most amazing way, the weed that never dies, or so it seems..  If it is not stopped in some way or other it continues to spread inexorably.  It is hearty and doesn’t require any intervention at all to make it grow.  It grows naturally all by itself,  The problem is not how to get it to grow, but how to stop its spread.  Large bureaucratic agencies are analogous to Kudzu–maybe even harder to limit.  We call it Mission Creep.

Mission Creep (MC) is the extension of an organization’s function as defined by its mission, beyond the original purpose of its existence.  Mission Creep in other words is “empire building” by stealth rather than by conquest and violence.  We see it in private organizations and we see it in public agencies as well.  Let’s take an example from the private sector.  Let’s say a university has established an office to deal with student life.  Over time, and this is true at many universities, that office begins to interject itself into the academic division, even to offer academic events and programs, such as conferences, panels, symposia, all on academic subjects.  This is most definitely MC—unless of course the university had already included that function in the office.  Such MC can be at the least a bit frustrating to those being infringed, though it might not rise to the level of unethical overreach.  In a Christian university it has the potential to create significant discord in the overall mission, especially if one office is using the MC strategy to undermine the efforts of another.  One office might be quite theologically liberal while another “victim” of its MC is operating consistently with the overall university mission.  The problem is pretty obvious.

But what about MC in government agencies that have been established by law to fulfill certain goals of the enabling statute.  Let’s take the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one of our all-time favorites I am certain.  Its original purpose was to protect and preserve clean water and air, to deal with pollution of both in order to reduce danger to health from externalities and costs of other kinds to those not parties to economic transactions.  I would say that is, within limits, a valuable goal—though we can argue with the constitutionality of the EPA’s origin, a different question.

To fulfill its mission, the EPA of course must, or so it would argue, issue regulation intended to implement the intent and language of the statute.  So far so good, in theory, though again one might argue that the statute was too vague and could have been made self-enforcing through some different policy approach.  That is, also again, however, a different issue.  Let’s just assume regulations are required to actually implement the law.  How can the issuing of such rules turn into mission creep?

Under the Clean Air Act, an amendment to the Environmental Protection Act, the EPA has authority to address pollution problems with interstate waterways.  Thus far, that authority extended only to clearly interstate waters—creeks, rivers, large lakes (Erie, etc.), estuaries, bays, inlets, harbors and the like.  But recently the EPA has proposed rules that would govern virtually all waters, including ponds, runoff water from heavy rain, otherwise dry water beds (gulches, etc.), even if they have no connection to the interstate movement of water.  Farmers and others are rightly worried.  They think, with some supporting evidence, that such rules would at the least create a burdensome and time-consuming bureaucratic process requiring assessments and permitting that would harm their ability to engage in their various businesses.  The EPA claims that the rules do exempt such bodies of water from the regulations, but the response to that claim is skepticism and a belief that since the EPA itself interprets its own rules, the tendency will be to encompass those waters. 

Given the history of the EPA, I am led also to be skeptical.  The EPA has shown a propensity to Mission Creep since 1969, and not merely a superficial endeavor, but an imperialistic expansion of authority.  And the courts have also shown a willingness to be the EPA’s accomplice in extending its power. 

So what is next if these regulations are issued intact (though they may not be)?  Conspiracy theorists and cynics would say the agency will attempt to regulate swimming pools, indoor bathtub water (?), temporary standing water in one’s backyard, and on and on.  This may seem far-fetched, and probably is, but is it that much different from the EPA’s recent proposals to regulate cow flatulence to improve air quality?  I don’t know, but I remain skeptical that any large and essentially unaccountable government agency can be trusted to stay within the limits of its power as reasonably construed.

If you don’t like Mission Creep, then one place to start is in your own backyard.  Be sure to establish enforceable checks on power—the key word is “enforceable.”  That way, if the organization attempts to take more power to itself, there is a mechanism to stop it in its tracks.  Congress failed to do that with almost every Federal agency, and most state agencies are little better.  The time has come to give the problem more publicity.  A movement to limit bureaucratic authority would be most welcome.