I was reading an interesting article in Reason today that directly addressed one of the major issues I have raised before and frequently alluded to (see http://reason.com/archives/2016/12/19/trump-versus-the-we-bes, December 20, 2016). It has to do with the theme of “Trump versus the bureaucracy.” One could substitute any president’s name in that slogan since the 1930s at least. This is the crucial question: How does a president or his cabinet or his political appointees actually control the huge Federal agencies and make them do what the president’s agenda seeks to accomplish? Theorists of bureaucracy have tried to deal with this problem for some years, and have enumerated the long list of ways bureaucrats can stall or simply obstruct any president’s goals–or any Congress’s as well.
The structural problems that allow this are several. First, most (99.9%) of all bureaucrats are hired and fired based on Civil Service rules and do not serve at the will and pleasure of the president. They were in their positions before Trump and likely will be after he leaves office. Some have been in their jobs since Bill Clinton’s presidency. Many have been hired during President Obama’s two terms–a lot of time to hire Civil Service employees. Only about 4,000 people are not covered by Civil Service and can be appointed or fired by the President.
Second, because these agencies are so large, the employees can effectively slow down any change they don’t like, even if they don’t directly and vocally oppose it. They can refuse to work efficiently, slow their processing of paperwork, pass on distorted information upward in the chain of command, re-interpret or creatively interpret orders coming down the chain, or adopt other interesting and stifling strategies. What can the political appointees do? To fire or discipline them requires considerable effort and sometimes fails, and public sector unions can always act to help save the employees’ jobs.
Is this a hopeless situation? Not necessarily. But it will require courage and perseverance–and great innovativeness and craft. In addition, Congress can help, though it might refuse–unfortunately–by cutting off or reducing funding for parts of agencies that are obstinate. This move could effectively eliminate many bureaucrats in some agencies. Congress could also modify the laws that protect bad employees–think Veterans Affairs here. It could pass laws that establish more independent observers or inspector generals, whose jobs would be to watch agencies, but who could not be fired or disciplined by those agencies. The president can rescind executive orders and can begin the process of eliminating many regulations that stifle individual freedom and economic prosperity and opportunity. This of course requires aggressive agency heads who know what they are doing–or whose deputies can give them good advice.
Another interesting strategy might be to realign or reorganize agencies so that power is redistributed to different parts of the agency that are amenable to the president’s or to Congress’s desires. Yes, that might mean more expensive budgets, since the old employees might remain while new ones are brought on. But eventually those old ones would retire or resign. Or Congress could eliminate by defunding entire portions of agencies that are uncooperative.
All this sounds strangely Machiavellian and is to an extent. But it is not illegal, unconstitutional or even unethical. In fact, it attempts to move back toward what our limited Constitutional government was intended to be.
Let’s be clear. Most Federal bureaucracies do not operate like the military and despite formal chains of command, do not give and follow orders the same way. Anyone who thinks he or she can simply say “do this” or “stop doing that” and expect it to be obeyed is naive. And anyone who thinks the solution is then just to fire them or demote them is equally naive.
What we will need to a strong political will. We will need agency heads and a president who is willing to accept the inevitable negative press and attempts to smear them and to have a thick skin to ignore those attempts. I can’t say whether our government is reaching or has reached a watershed moment. But if this administration can’t make any headway, I see little hope that any future one will.