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March 28 2017

Enough Rope Department: Out of Control Federal Bureaucrats May Be Overplaying Their Hand

by Charlotte Hays

An article in Commentary takes note of the prominent role being played by the federal bureaucracy in "the resistance" to the guy who is, by law, their boss. In the article "Treason of the Bureaucrats," Daniel DiSalvo writes:

News stories circulated that federal civil servants were considering ways to defy the president. The Washington Post reported that career government employees were seeking advice from Obama appointees still on the job on how to push back against the new administration without jeopardizing their posts. Some employees created social-media accounts as vehicles for future leaks. Others attended forums and workshops on how to oppose Trump.

At the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, workers discussed how to use internal grievance procedures to gum up the works and coordinate slowdowns on the job—called “working to code” in labor relations, which if done en masse can amount to an informal strike. Hundreds of EPA employees protested Trump’s nominee, Scott Pruitt, to head the agency in Chicago, and 450 former employees signed a letter to the U.S. Senate opposing Pruitt’s confirmation. At the State Department, several hundred employees used a formal dissent channel to send a cable protesting Trump’s executive order on refugees. The cable was immediately leaked to the press.

So far leaks have been the primary way that bureaucrats, especially in the intelligence community, have sought to undermine the new administration. For instance, the leaks that led to the eventual firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn revealed that parts of the U.S. intelligence community are knee-deep in political activity that should be off-limits to them.

DiSalvo recounts how the federal bureaucracy, once part of a political spoils system, evolved into what it is--and how its opposition to Donald Trump might backfire and help it evolve into something else entirely (as in being cut down to size). DiSalvo suggests that a permanent bureaucracy fits awkwardly within a democratic structure. In theory, the bureaucracy is there to enact the policies of the elected president. But civil service job security means that the bureaucracy is more like an independent force that operates in freedom, not in practice hampered by a president's objectives. As DiSalvo explains:

They have at their disposal a variety of techniques to sabotage actions ordered by elected officials with whom they disagree. These can include slowing down the pace of work on the job, mobilizing interest groups against an agency’s agenda, or leaking sensitive information to Congress or the news media. The Whistle Blower Protection Act protects some of these powers of obstruction. In sum, whatever the will of the people as expressed through elections, the bureaucracy retains a good deal of autonomy.

Like many unfortunate developments in our government, this autonomous bureaucracy grew out of reform. During the nineteenth century and early twentieth, the federal bureaucracy was beholden to political masters. Coveted government jobs were doled out by the spoils system--the winner of the election cleaned house and installed his own people. As William Marcy observed, "To the victor belong the spoils."

Progressive reformers wanted to stabilize and professionalize this system.

From the 1880s to the 1960s, [progressive reformers] waged an 80-year crusade to destroy party machines at all levels of government. They did so by instituting civil-service protections, impartial exams, and by reducing the number of patronage appointees. In 1939, Congress passed the Hatch Act, which barred federal employees from most partisan political activities. (Congress later amended it to allow federal employees to engage in partisan campaign activity while off-duty).

The creation and establishment of the civil service in the United States was designed to shield the federal government and its employees from the vicissitudes of politics. The civil-service system would deliver the state from the hands of corrupt party bosses to the educated and enlightened technocrats. The underlying idea was that more and more areas of public policy could be taken out of political contestation and quietly handled by experts. Only then, it was held, could government make and carry out comprehensive and consistent plans in the public interest.

The downside, DiSalvo argues, is that the bureaucracy became untethered from control by an administration and and indeed became an internal administrative state with its own agendas. Add into the bargain that the bureaucracy itself would become a powerful voting block and that it would have unquestionable loyalty to the Democratic Party, and you have a recipe for the current situation, in which bureaucrats try to thwart the goals of a duly-elected president.  A further point: not only is the bureaucracy fireproof, its members are compensated above the level they would receive in the private sector, making government more expensive than it should be. But here's the good news: our insulated bureaucrats may be overplaying their hand in the Age of Trump.

DiSalvo has an encouraging conclusion:

Nakedly partisan activities undercut the rationale of the civil-service system, which is that the administrative state is to be run by highly trained but politically neutral experts. If bureaucrats are really just cosseted partisans, the grounds for their protections melt into air.

In addition, there is a widespread view that the civil-service system is not performing well, and that there should be changes to the way federal workers are hired, promoted, and disciplined. As things currently stand, almost no federal employees are fired for performance-based reasons. Employees accused of wrongdoing—such as watching pornography on the job or threatening a fellow employee—can be suspended and under investigation for years, all the while collecting full pay and benefits. Performance evaluations are considered basically useless, since nearly all employees are rated as doing excellent work. As New York University professor Paul Light, the leading expert on the federal bureaucracy, puts it: “The civil-service system fails at almost everything it was designed to do. It’s very slow at hiring, negligent in disciplining, permissive in promoting.”

Bureaucratic obstruction of the new president thus plays right into the hands of those who want to reform the civil service. There is simply no way a populist insurgency like Trump’s will take the continual defiance of government employees lying down. And relatively affluent, well-educated federal employees are not exactly a sympathetic group in a country skeptical of government. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz has proposed legislation that would make it easier to dismiss federal employees. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has endorsed overhauling civil-service rules. The result may be that a civil-service reform is facilitated rather than thwarted by hysterical anti-Trump activism.

And think of the savings to the taxpayer if we can give some of our employees the opportunity to use their vaunted talents to compete for jobs in the private sector!

It's a terrific article and I urge you to read it.  

 

 

 

 

 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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