Among the institutional reform issues that the incoming Biden Administration needs to address is an overhaul of the federal civil service. One of the most destructive legacies of the Trump Administration is its numerous efforts to politicize and weaken the permanent bureaucracy by replacing professional civil servants with incompetent or self-serving appointees chosen for their political loyalty to the President. This process was described in painful detail in Michael Lewis’ 2018 book, The Fifth Risk, about the Obama-to-Trump transition—for example, the replacement of geologist and former astronaut Kathryn Sullivan as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by Barry Myers, the CEO of AccuWeather, whose business model was to repackage NOAA’s data and sell it. Myers used his new position to remove much of NOAA’s free data from public view so that it would not compete with data from his former company.
All new administrations are entitled to put aligned supporters in positions of authority, and their subordinates can properly be expected to carry out their policies. But the Trump Administration went much farther, declaring its intention before it took office to destroy the so-called “deep state,” root and branch. Its contempt for the federal government was demonstrated by its failure even to appoint scores of high-ranking officials (e.g., the secretaries of defense and homeland security), allowing their duties to be fulfilled by “acting” officials who thereby managed to avoid the Senate confirmation process.
The impact of this assault on the government can be measured in various ways. Certain agencies, like the Department of State and the Environmental Protection Agency, were targeted early, with scores of long-serving professionals being forced out or resigning because of the hostile environment they faced. Trump’s efforts to use the Department of Justice as a tool to serve his political self-interest led to the ouster of highly competent U.S. attorneys around the country like New York’s Geoffrey Berman, who had been involved in the prosecution of Trump cronies like Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani. Attorney General Bill Barr intervened in cases in a number of highly political ways—for example, by reinterpreting the Mueller Report and reducing the sentence given to Trump friend Roger Stone. Michael Pack, Trump’s appointee to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), did particular damage by forcing out the highly competent heads of USAGM’s component agencies—like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia.
Trump’s malign intentions toward the professional bureaucracy were on glaring display during the impeachment process. The articles of impeachment were filed in the first place because of testimony from a series of civil servants—including former Ambassadors Marie Yovanovitch and Bill Taylor, National Security Council staffers Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman, and many others—all to the effect that Trump had sought to extort damaging information about Hunter Biden, son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, by withholding congressionally mandated military assistance to Ukraine. These officials were simply telling the truth about what they had seen and heard, as they are required to do when under oath. Trump personally targeted them for their testimony and, once he was acquitted by the Republican Senate, fired those who, like Vindman, remained in government. Trump also removed the inspectors general for the Departments of State and Transportation, the intelligence community, and other agencies who were seeking to investigate the propriety of actions by various Trump appointees.
The attack on the “deep state” played out most publicly and damagingly during the covid-19 crisis, when Trump essentially went to war with his health bureaucrats, ignoring their advice and doing everything he could to undercut their authority—even characterizing them at one point as “these idiots.” The human consequences of this failure have been enormous, with the United States leading the world in numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths.
The issue is not, as many Trump critics suggest, a matter of “listening to science.” “Science” does not speak with a single voice, and the advice of scientists necessarily changes as evidence changes. No president can let his health bureaucracy simply dictate policy during an epidemic, because public health is only one of several public interests that a government needs to serve. The economic costs of the shutdowns have been enormous, and it is perfectly legitimate for a leader to accept a lower level of health in return for reduced economic damage. Even today, with the pandemic raging in the United States and Europe, few politicians seriously suggest returning to the strict quarantine measures of last spring: Such measures would be hard to enforce now, in part because they would be unacceptable to many citizens. A professional public health bureaucracy should provide one input into the policy decision-making process, to be evaluated against other interests. If a president is going to make such an evaluation, he first needs to get forthright advice from a permanent, professional, non-partisan bureaucracy.
Trump and his allies, however, did not engage in a sober weighing of different public goods. Instead, they viewed the pandemic primarily as a threat to their immediate political interests, most notably in the way it would affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Moreover, Trump permitted public health measures like mask-wearing to become issues in the broader culture wars instead of recommendations to be weighed in light of existing evidence.
Trump’s war against the permanent bureaucracy culminated in Executive Order 13957, issued two weeks before the November 3 election, creating a new “Schedule F” category for federal employees—with fewer protections than those enjoyed by current civil servants—and ordering all agencies to move large numbers of their employees into this category by January 19, 2021. In addition, the Trump Administration has been accused of “burrowing” political appointees into civil service positions from which they cannot be removed easily by a new administration.
The coronavirus epidemic has demonstrated to many Americans why the United States needs a permanent bureaucracy staffed with competent professionals. The “deep state” attacked by Trump is nothing other than a modern state, built on a foundation of competence and professionalism, something that no functioning liberal democracy can do without.
The election of Joe Biden opens an opportunity to bolster and reform the federal bureaucracy. There will be a temptation to believe that the problems in the bureaucracy began with Trump’s election; unfortunately, however, American government was characterized by deep dysfunctions long before he was elected. So, if reform occurs, it is necessary not just to repair the immediate damage done since 2016 but to address longer term issues that have festered for decades.
In future articles in this series, I will lay out an agenda for reform of the U.S. public sector. The next piece will focus on the proposed Schedule F executive order and the general problem of hiring and firing in the U.S. government.
Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose, directs the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.
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