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Op-Ed | Public Seminar | October 23, 2020

Donald Trump Politicized the Federal Bureaucracy: The Next President Needs to Reverse That

Congressional OversightGovernment Capacity

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In an effort to mitigate the political damage from failing to contain the virus and manage its corollary crises, the White House recently mandated that the Department of Agriculture include a signed letter from Donald Trump inside food boxes, claiming credit for the federal program providing food to families in need. The move effectively politicized the taxpayer funded program as a tool of the president’s own self-promotion just a month before the election. Even worse, the department’s inclusion of the letter has jeopardized the program’s operation, as distribution sites fear they will be improperly engaging in political activity.

This is hardly a lone example. As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpasses 200,000, Donald Trump’s political appointees are busy posting scientifically inaccurate statements about reopening schools, discouraging testing, and even manipulating the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) standard public morbidity report.

These controversies are unfortunately just a few signs of the widespread politicization of the basic functions of government and of a country already on the slippery slope that can lead from chronic corruption to autocracy.

Manipulation of the federal workforce to serve a president’s politics isn’t new. In fact, its prevalence was the animating reason for creating the apolitical civil service. The system under attack today was created back in the 19th century to prevent this kind of interference with the functioning of government for purely political ends.

Federal hiring began as a nakedly and fully transactional system, with changes in party control marked by supporters lining up at the White House to claim their “spoils.” This approach was not conducive to smooth government operation. By the 1880’s, this spoils system had become so ingrained that President James Garfield’s assassination came at the hands of a disgruntled office seeker, Charles Guiteau. His successor, Chester A. Arthur, himself a notorious beneficiary of patronage, signed the Pendleton Act creating the Civil Service Commission (CSC) to ensure the future selection of federal employees on the basis of merit. Over the next century, the Progressive Era and New Deal transformed the federal government into the nation’s largest employer, arming it with broad regulatory and welfare responsibilities.

As a result, the prototypical civil servant went from a customs inspector ministerially applying duties to an expert managing a program or making policy recommendations. The expansion of the federal government after World War II also created employment opportunities for African-Americans who had been historically excluded from the private sector.

As the civil service continued to expand and increase in complexity, the Carter administration shepherded the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 through Congress. This law was intended to modernize federal hiring programs and systems, hoping to achieve this goal by giving the president and individual agencies further control over personnel policy, but still preserving the principle of merit-based hiring.

Unfortunately, these reforms came into existence just as Ronald Reagan entered the White House with his declaration that “government is the problem.”  As a candidate, Reagan’s support of “states’ rights” and his bashing of “welfare queens” signalled that communities of color and the public sector would be sacrificed to appease a racist politic of a government by and for white people. Furthermore, this resurgent conservatism saw the federal government as a tool of the loathed New Deal and Great Society. By attacking the very idea that government should work, Republican political appointees turned what had been for many decades a nonpartisan, law abiding civil service into a political target.

Under both Clinton and George W. Bush, the size of the federal workforce shrank. Then the Bush administration began to up the political ante when it came to supposedly non-partisan appointments. Under Bush, anti-government ideology added a corollary: that the remnants of the civil service should be populated with those who support the President.

When the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, they made use of Inspector General (OIG) investigations and oversight hearings to bring the full extent of malfeasance to light. In 2008, multiple internal investigations into the Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed the politicization of the agency’s hiring process. According to one report, in 2002 and 2006 an opaque screening committee composed of political appointees removed hundreds of candidates that they determined to have “liberal biases” from Justice Department interview lists and disproportionately approved candidates with clear conservative leanings. This illegal process increased the power of Bush-era political appointees and diminished the continuity of career DOJ employees.  Another internal investigation revealed extensive political interference from 2004 to 2007 in the hiring and promotion of career federal prosecutors and immigration judges. Then there was Monica Goodling, a Bush appointee, who implemented a program that illegally asked career applicants about their political party affiliation, involvement in Bush / Cheney campaigns, and  “what kind of conservative” they were. This process gave important positions away to unqualified candidates because of their conservative stances on core GOP issues like “god, guns + gays.

The politicized hiring, combined with the Screening Committee’s own process delays, shrank certain divisions in the Justice Department, particularly hindering the Criminal, Tax, Antitrust, and Civil Rights Divisions from doing their jobs.

The DOJ’s internal team performed the bulk of the investigations, while congressional oversight played a crucial role in disseminating the findings to the public. The ensuing Inspector General investigations yielded lengthy, fact-based reports on the state of the agency that provided a roadmap for the Obama administration to understand Bush’s large-scale attack on the Justice Department. Tom Perez, Obama’s first Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, regularly referenced these reports in explaining the negative impact that the Bush administration had on the Civil Rights division’s ability to bring voting rights cases. Perez and team used these OIG reports and the insider knowledge of career DOJ officials as diagnostic tools to understand the root of the agency’s dysfunction and map a plan to realign it with its mission. Returning hiring power to career DOJ employees was key to making the Civil Rights division function again. Subsequent oversight hearings also allowed House Democrats to bring the findings back into the public’s attention, press witnesses for further details under threat of perjury, and put the findings into the broader context of the lawlessness of the Bush administration.

But a decade later, all of these hard-won accomplishments would be thrown into reverse by the Trump administration. From the start of his presidency, in 2017, Trump announced his intention to lay siege to what he called the “deep state.” It is not surprising that Trump’s Department of Justice is now rife with hiring abuses similar to the Bush/Cheney era.

From what’s public knowledge, the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr has meddled in the prosecution of known Trump cronies like Roger Stone, fired US Attorneys who were investigating Trump’s affairs too closely, and distorted the Mueller report findings.

Personnel data tells a similar story: the Executive Office for US Attorneys has gone from having 7 Schedule C political appointees in 2008, to none in 2016, to 5 in 2019. Proliferation of these low level political appointees suggests a renewed emphasis by the Trump administration on political loyalty over civil service competence in the US Attorney’s offices.

In other agencies Trump’s so-called “beachhead” or Presidential transition teams immediately installed hundreds of new hires across the executive branch, including corporate lobbyists and Breitbart contributors. The lobbyists Trump installed spanned several industries, all assigned to regulate the very industries they themselves have lobbied for. 

In 2018, several senior Democratic members of Congress, then still in the minority, sent letters accusing the Trump administration of appointing a cadre of partisan judges to the immigration courts and requested an Inspector General investigation into whistle-blower complaints of politicized hiring. And while the postal service has become a flashpoint in Trump’s attack on the civil service, it’s hardly the only agency where ideologically motivated appointees have launched an attack on the very mechanisms of government.

Building on these attempts to hold the Trump administration accountable, Democrats going forward need to restore rigorous oversight by Congress. In the lame duck session after the election, congressional committees should hold hearings using whistleblower complaints and public reports of politicized hiring decisions at critical federal agencies. They should demand inspectors general begin investigations now, send questions for the record about hiring practices, and subpoena recalcitrant agency leaders who refuse to cooperate. Through rigorous oversight, congress can create appropriate outrage and keep public attention on the lawlessness of the Trump administration.

From the CDC to the Agricultural Department to the USPS, it is clear that the Trump administration is riddled with unqualified personnel who seek to undermine the very agencies and departments they are charged with leading. The Biden administration should use a neutral, apolitical principle in evaluating these personnel: their ability to fulfill their job responsibilities. For instance, Inspectors General must be independent and objective. Trump’s firing of two confirmed Inspectors General and the removal of three others in acting positions is intended to disrupt internal oversight of the executive branch. Given Trump’s public record of appointing loyalists, his IG replacements should be scrutinized like all other hires. If the record shows that they ignored waste, fraud and abuse by Trump loyalists at the expense of their own independence, then it would be the responsibility of the new administration to remove them.

If personnel is policy, a Biden administration will have to use all of the legal means at their disposal to understand the depth of damage Trump has wrought to the executive branch.

Otherwise, the administration will be running up against internally seeded corruption that is hostile to the notion of government itself. As the country faces the intersecting crises of coronavirus failure, racial injustice, an economic recession, and ongoing climate change, we will need a competent federal government to bring us out of chaos and into a better and bolder future. The more Congress and an incoming Biden administration can concretely learn how the executive branch is broken, the sooner they can develop a plan to fix it.

While Republicans and equivocators in the media may characterize action to improve the functioning of government as just another form of politicization, the clear dysfunction of the Federal government says otherwise. Uncovering and remedying the full extent of Trump’s attacks on the Inspectors General and executive branch agencies is not political, any more than ensuring that the mail is delivered on time is political. It is fulfillment of the legal imperative to maintain a functioning government based on unbiased internal oversight, an imperative the Trump administration has largely ignored.

Although we face what is one of the most corrupt presidencies in U.S. history, the necessary repair of the executive branch presents an opportunity to revitalize the civil service and build a federal workforce that works for all. This stronger civil service may clash with the incoming administration’s political leadership, but this is worth it to protect more consistent regard for law and science in the future. Inspector general reports and congressional oversight hearings will help lay out a path for an incoming administration to follow that will support the removal of improperly hired civil servants as well as surface techniques the Trump administration adopted to corrupt the functioning of the federal government. Without this oversight, the chaos and illegality of the Trump-era will carry over to the next administration.

Congressional OversightGovernment Capacity

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