Government Capacity

At the core of the Revolving Door Project’s work is a deeply held belief that government should work to advance the public interest, not the goals of a wealthy and well-connected few. For too long, this has been far from the reality. By quietly capturing key positions throughout the executive branch, corporate America has reshaped the rules that govern our economy. RDP regularly calls attention to these oft-overlooked corporate allies to increase the political costs of politicians’ consequential personnel concessions. At the same time, we are leading the way in envisioning an alternative model — one in which political appointments go to a more representative, public-interest minded class of leaders — and charting how we get there. 

As important as this work is, however, it alone will not be sufficient to remake government for the people. Even the most committed, effective leaders can do very little to advance the public interest if the institutions they lead are broken. And our governing infrastructure is crumbling. After years of attacks from both sides of the aisle, the federal government is able to do less overall and to do what it still does less effectively. This is not, as some would have you believe, an inherent failure endemic to “Big Government” but the opposite — ineffectiveness is the direct result of disinvestment. 

Civil service capacity*, in particular, has suffered. The corps of people who make the government run each day is shrinking when compared to the country’s population. It is also aging as it struggles to attract new talent, especially under austerity regimes such as the Obama-Boehner “sequester deal” in which new hiring was often off the table. The federal government today employs about as many workers as it did in 1960, which some conservatives see as a sign of their failure not to gut it more. Meanwhile, civil servants are regularly denigrated as lazy, ineffective, and greedy. And, of course, these problems only grew more acute throughout Donald Trump’s destructive four years in office. 

If we want the government to work for the people again, we can no longer neglect the question of who is doing that work. The Revolving Door Project is working to draw attention to this overlooked aspect of governance and to ensure that our leaders have the political will to take it on. That work can be divided into two overarching tranches: demanding accountability for Trump’s particularly egregious attacks on the civil service and proposing a more expansive vision for full-time federal personnel policy going forward. 

Coming to Terms with Trump’s Legacy

Throughout his time in office, Trump made no secret of his contempt for the civil service. In ways both big and small, Trump and his cronies made it more difficult for members of the federal workforce to do their jobs and in the process rendered us all much less safe. Career employees who contradicted him were at best ignored and at worst suffered severe retaliation. Entire offices that were seen to pose a threat were moved across the country. Meanwhile new hiring was frozen and budgets slashed, leaving those who remained with the trying task of doing more with less. In the administration’s closing days it went even further, lobbing a bomb at the civil service system in the form of Trump’s schedule F executive order. 

More disturbing still is the fact that these attacks undertaken in the public eye likely only represent the tip of the iceberg. This administration could easily have been accomplishing much more behind closed doors. This includes politicizing career hiring processes (as occurred during the George W. Bush administration), expanding the use of government contracting, reorganizing offices to reduce career officials power, and more. Each of these moves will cause problems over the long-term if not uncovered and reversed. A first step, therefore, in rebuilding the civil service and government capacity will be to clearly understand what the Trump administration accomplished. 

Envisioning Something New

In addition to turning our gaze backwards to the last four years, Revolving Door Project is working to chart a path forwards. Specific proposals to rebuild the civil service and increase the government’s capacity to act in the public interest will vary, but we believe that all should adhere to the following basic principles:

  • We can no longer tolerate personnel shortfalls. Political leaders must commit to investing what it takes to ensure that the civil service has the capacity it needs – in terms of the raw number of people, technical resources, and expertise – to carry out its functions. That will include a short term surge to use existing authorities to replenish agencies devastated by Trump as well as serious medium and long term initiatives.
  • We must elevate and valorize civil servants’ expertise. Trump’s denigration of civil service expertise has been extraordinary, but he is far from the first president to sideline career experts. The balance of power between political appointees and civil servants has shifted steadily in the former’s favor under both Democratic and Republican presidents. That means higher turnover and less experience in key decision-making roles. It is time to start shifting the balance back by making more space for civil servants to weigh in at the highest levels. Hero of the moment, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is far from the only public servant with the expertise and commitment to meaningfully advance the public interest in times of peace and of crisis alike. The next administration should look to unleash this vast store of knowledge and public-minded energy.
  • Civil service jobs should be good jobs. To attract new civil service entrants, policymakers must improve the quality of civil service jobs. Many civil servants operate in a hostile environment, subject to political attacks (from both outside the walls of government and inside them) which often manifests in chronic underfunding, and thus, overwork. Our political leaders must reject this scapegoating wholesale.

    In addition to funding under-resourced departments, they should commit to creating more pathways for hiring (especially for people from marginalized communities who are severely underrepresented in the civil service’s upper ranks) and to providing career officials with more meaningful control over executive-branch policymaking. That must involve recognizing unions representing civil service workers as legitimate stakeholders with whom leaders should negotiate in good faith. It should also include trimming down the growth in layers of political appointees (many of whom lack subject matter expertise) who sit between career experts and decision-making power. While political appointees are an important and necessary part of executive branch governance, excessive politicization of the type we see today is detrimental.
  • After years of government outsourcing, we need a new wave of insourcing. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration “reinvented” government, putting many of its core functions into the hands of contractors. These policies particularly devastated workers of color who are disproportionately represented in the public workforce and for whom public employment has long represented an especially promising pathway to the middle class. Over two decades later, it is clear that that strategy has failed. Government contractors are neither cheaper nor, seemingly, more effective.

    As for the workers, those employed by contractors tend to have lower wages and worse benefits than their public sector counterparts (the costliness of this workforce stems from the spoils going to firms’ senior management, shareholders, and lobbying/government relations teams). And, with the number of contract workers ballooning, it is becoming ever more difficult for Congress to properly oversee this “shadow” workforce. It’s past time that the federal government take back control of more of the work of government, for the sake of those who are actually doing the jobs and in the spirit of greater democratic control. 

Those who wish to see the federal government work for the public interest cannot afford to ignore the plight of those who will be tasked with reaching these goals. By improving the quality of civil service jobs, policies in line with these principles will encourage new people to join the federal workforce and make it so that those who do join want to stay. That will translate, in turn, to greater expertise in policy decision-making, better continuity of operations during transitions, and a greater capacity to respond to the country’s long- and short-term challenges. In short, such policies will help to grant our federal government the capacity to effectuate structural changes.

* We define civil service personnel broadly to include both members of the civil service and career officials in “excepted” roles like those at the Department of Justice or the Treasury Department.

Below you will find some of the project’s writing and research on government capacity. For a selection of quotes and interviews on the topic, please visit this page.

June 23, 2022 | The American Prospect

Glenna Li

Op-Ed

Government CapacityIndependent AgenciesLaborNLRB

President Biden’s Best Agency Is Starved for Cash

Two months after Ithaca, New York, became the first city to unionize all of its Starbucks locations, Starbucks announced a dramatic alteration to its business plan for the city: It was closing a shop with one week’s notice. The coffee leviathan stated the store was closing due to “efficiency” concerns and would not guarantee new jobs for the location’s workers.

June 13, 2022

Toni Aguilar Rosenthal Mekedas Belayneh

Blog Post

FDAGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies

The Decades-Long Food Failure at the FDA 

In 2008, a deadly salmonella outbreak from contaminated peanut products killed nine and sickened over 700 people. In the aftermath, the peanut executives who poisoned people with food they knew was contaminated received decades-long prison sentences, an all-too-rare case of a corporate criminal being held responsible for the harm they caused. Contemporary public outrage also helped to fuel a push for more structural reform to the food safety regulatory system as a whole. Shortly after the outbreak, the Obama administration began whipping bipartisan congressional support for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which sought to prevent future food safety crises by expanding and strengthening the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authority over food. FSMA ultimately passed both the Senate and the House by wide margins and enjoyed broad public support when finally enacted in 2011. 

May 10, 2022

Toni Aguilar Rosenthal

Blog Post

Government CapacityIndependent AgenciesIRS

The IRS Has Finally Been Given The Power to Rebuild. It’s Not Enough.

In March, six months after the start of Fiscal Year 2022, Congress finally passed an omnibus funding agreement that brought agencies out from under the shadow of Trump-era austerity (although still fell far short of enacting the funding levels that most agencies require to meet their responsibilities to the public). Critically, in the case of at least one agency, the omnibus did not just grant the money to hire new staff, but the means to do so much more quickly. At the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Congress greenlit the use of direct hiring authorities to empower the agency to temporarily forgo some of the more onerous aspects of the federal hiring process as well as to facilitate a quick rebuilding of the IRS’ notoriously depleted ranks. With this designation, Congress acknowledged that staff shortages at the IRS had reached a state of emergency and thus acted accordingly. 

April 05, 2022

Dylan Gyauch-Lewis Andrea Beaty

Blog Post

Anti-MonopolyDepartment of JusticeFTCGovernment Capacity

Putting Biden’s Antitrust Budget Increases In Context

The federal government may no longer be operating under the onus of Trump-era austerity, but agencies across the federal government are still far from having the resources they need to quickly and effectively fulfill their responsibilities to the American people. For the most part, President Biden’s proposed FY 2023 budget fails to fill that gap. However, increased funding for antitrust regulation is one of the bright spots in an otherwise uninspired budget. As we have covered in the past, both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (ATR) saw staffing levels stagnate and budget allocations that did not keep pace with inflation or GDP growth. 

March 16, 2022

Fatou Ndiaye

Blog Post

ClimateDepartment of JusticeGovernment Capacity

To Take Down Corporate Polluters, the DOJ's Environmental Enforcer Needs More Capacity

Overseen by Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim, the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) is one of seven litigating components of the Department of Justice (DOJ). The ENRD is divided into ten sections, each with its own area of expertise. The Division fulfills a wide range of responsibilities. For instance, the ENRD is tasked with protecting the nation’s natural resources and enforcing U.S. civil and criminal environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and hazardous waste laws. The Division also handles tribal rights and resources cases. Other responsibilities include, but are not limited to, “facilitating cleaner energy and ensuring marketplace integrity; defending and adjudicating water rights for Federal agencies and Indian Tribes, as well as policies and decisions that support the generation of clean energy on Federal lands and the outer continental shelf; and, promoting international climate justice activities and the advancement of legislative and policy matters related to climate change.”

February 22, 2022

Dylan Gyauch-Lewis

Report

Anti-MonopolyDepartment of JusticeGovernment Capacity

Making The Antitrust Division Competitive: A Look At Capacity As Biden Revitalizes Enforcement

The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (ATR) is, along with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the primary regulator of antitrust law and is responsible for ensuring markets’ competitiveness. In that capacity, it investigates corporate consolidation and allegations of collusion and anticompetitive practices that undermine the free market. ATR is also responsible for supervising mergers and acquisitions to ensure that companies cannot establish monopolies. While both ATR and the FTC share this objective, the two divide jurisdiction based on industry. ATR also investigates and prosecutes criminal antitrust violations.

February 07, 2022

Fatou Ndiaye

Blog Post

ClimateGovernment Capacity

The Department of Energy Needs More Capacity To Help Prevent A Dim Future

Addressing the climate crisis on a federal level requires, at minimum, that the agencies and departments of the federal government be fully staffed and equipped to implement and enforce regulations. In the Revolving Door Project’s Climate Capacity Crisis Report, we initially found that the Department of Energy (DOE) had relatively higher staffing levels compared to other agencies, though certainly not enough to fulfill its mandate. As of June 2021, Biden’s DOE had hired 79 more STEM employees than were employed by the department in September 2016, whereas the Department of Agriculture, Department of Interior, National Park Service, United States Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency all lost STEM employees within that same time period. Despite the DOE’s comparably impressive staffing levels, a recent Washington Post article revealed that the department was struggling to stay on top of mounting work, causing unnecessary problems in their fight against the climate crisis.

January 28, 2022

Fatou Ndiaye

Blog Post

Financial RegulationGovernment CapacityHousing

Capacity Shortfalls At The FHFA

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is an independent federal agency established by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) following the 2008-2010 subprime mortgage crisis. Upon its creation, the FHFA replaced the Federal Housing Finance Board (FHFB), the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), and the GSE mission office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The FHFA is responsible for ensuring regulated entities “fulfill their mission by operating in a safe and sound manner to serve as a reliable source of liquidity and funding for the housing finance market throughout the economic cycle.” The agency oversees the supervision, regulation, and housing mission oversight of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) and the Federal Home Loan Bank System, which includes the 11 Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBanks) and the Office of Finance. 

January 27, 2022

Letter

Anti-MonopolyDepartment of JusticeGovernment CapacityRevolving Door

Letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland Highlights Urgent Need for Resources in the Antitrust Division 

The Justice Department plays a key role in President Biden’s vision of promoting “the interests of American workers, businesses, and consumers” through increasing competition, a plan which stands to be one the most enduring legacies of this administration. Your commitment to promote “competition by fairly and vigorously enforcing the antitrust laws,” along with the confirmation of Jonathan Kanter to Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, are crucial steps forward in this vision.

January 27, 2022

Toni Aguilar Rosenthal

Blog Post

Government CapacityHousing

Sabotaged HUD Must Rebuild to Fix The Housing Crisis

As the pandemic exacerbates the nation’s ongoing housing crisis, President Biden has promised swift and immediate action. Effectively deploying the federal government’s powers to address this crisis, however, will require more than just good policy and motivated leadership. Past administrations eroded the federal government’s capacity to carry out effective policy to help tenants and homeowners. This administration will need to form new infrastructure, with an outsized focus on staffing reforms, in order to both restore capacity and implement new housing policies that will enable Americans to readily access safe and affordable housing. 

January 21, 2022 | The American Prospect

Eleanor Eagan

Op-Ed

Government Capacity

The Government Is Still Operating Under Trump’s Budget

A lot has changed in the year since President Biden took office. Across the executive branch, leaders who believe in the power of government to advance the public interest have replaced predecessors who were intent on dismantling the institutions they led. Unsurprisingly, policy priorities have shifted as well, with regulators embarking on ambitious new rulemakings and ramping up enforcement.

But there is one troubling constant looming above all of these changes: President Trump’s holdover budget is (basically) still in place, leaving the Biden administration to implement a bold new agenda with funding levels negotiated and approved by an administration that was determined to make that impossible.

January 20, 2022

Eleanor Eagan

Blog Post

Government Capacity

Revolving Door Project Examines Agency Capacity

The Revolving Door Project is fighting for an executive branch whose every corner is working tirelessly to advance the broad public interest and not to further entrench corporate power. That means scrutinizing the federal government’s highest ranks and applying pressure to keep them free of undue corporate influence. It also means interrogating whether the institutions those political leaders steer have the provisions they need to fulfill their missions. 

January 19, 2022

Press Release

ClimateGovernment Capacity

New Report Warns Agency Capture Threatens OCC Climate Response

Today the Revolving Door Project released a report on the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s OCC) capacity to implement and enforce climate regulation. This is the third installment of the project’s ongoing Climate Finance Capacity project \identifying the tools each component of the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) has to address the climate crisis through regulatory reform and the capacity-related obstacles that could stand in the way. Prior installments have looked at the Commodities Future Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).Through this project, we aim to highlight the responsibility each of these agencies have in regulating our financial system towards a more sustainable future, and the reforms necessary to achieve this vision as examined through the lens of each agency’s unique resourcing.