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Blog Post | January 21, 2021

To Build Back Better, Biden Must Fix Government

2020 Election/TransitionEthics in GovernmentGovernment Capacity
To Build Back Better, Biden Must Fix Government

Yesterday, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. President Biden has promised to build back a better America, but he faces a steep climb to reach this lofty goal. The nation is still reeling from an ongoing pandemic and recession, and the government has had to cope with massive shocks to the civil service, morale, and its basic functions during the Trump administration. To make good on his promise, Biden will need to undo the damage from Trump and decades of right-wing actions to undermine governance. That will require prioritizing several major goals:  

  1. De-Trumpification. The Trump administration has spent the last four years dismantling non-partisan governance and installing anti-government zealots. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley plainly stated last year that the administration was conducting loyalty tests on civil service workers and that anyone identified as insufficiently loyal would be ineligible for promotions, transferred to low-level positions, or fired. Meanwhile, Trump political appointees are attempting to burrow into civil service positions where they’ll be able to disrupt the Biden administration. To prevent residual Trumpian sabotage, Biden will need to oust all Trump appointees who are legally subject to removal and conduct significant investigations into all hirings and personnel actions related to Trump officials and associates, including those affected by Trump’s recent Schedule F executive order. Beyond personnel, the Biden administration must also work to immediately roll back rules and regulations that serve to undermine social welfare, punish the poor, and allow pollution to occur unabated while reinstating and expanding on Obama-era rules repealed by the Trump administration. 
  1. Rebuild government capacity. The federal government is in desperate need of civil service workers. Executive agencies have suffered staffing losses across the board under the Trump administration due to intermittent hiring freezes, staffing purges, and low morale. Some agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have suffered from attrition and insufficient staffing for decades. Staffing shortages have devastated the functions of our executive agencies, leaving them more vulnerable to infiltration from lobbyists. Further, under Trump, numerous high-level positions remained vacant. Now that Democrats have retaken control of the Senate, Biden will be able to fill the 1,000+ Senate-confirmed positions across executive agencies without needing to resort to the authorities conferred by the Vacancies Act or to recess appointments (although the Vacancies Act will still be necessary to ensure continuity of governance while hundreds of nominees slowly work their way through the Senate). Biden should also pursue measures to address staffing shortages in the short- and long-term. One such solution requiring congressional approval could include reducing the number of political appointees, which would help bolster workforce continuity between administrations, lower the potential for partisan subversion of an agency’s mission, and raise morale by signalling the importance of committed public servants. 
  1. Reject austerity and prioritize public welfare. Given the overlapping crises of COVID-19, racial injustice, economic recession, and climate change, the Biden administration must pursue bold action on all fronts to promote the welfare of the country. President Biden must reject austerity politics and support robust public investment in programs to improve access to healthcare, education, housing, and employment, particularly for struggling communities of color. Biden should avoid appointing deficit hawks who will discourage spending at a time when the government must take an active role in alleviating suffering and economic distress nationwide. Given the urgent need for economic relief and public resources, the administration must pursue action on multiple fronts simultaneously. Biden should harness his post-election political capital to accomplish sweeping policy goals as soon as possible. The President’s power and responsibility to see that the law is carried out affords tremendous latitude to make transformative changes. Biden can empower executive departments to pursue economic, racial, and climate justice through their respective powers. For instance, the Treasury could take an active role in combating climate change through research and regulations. Biden could also direct the IRS to prioritize audits of the wealthy, who are far more likely to avoid taxes, rather than EITC recipients. 
  2. Close the revolving door. Biden framed his campaign as “Scranton vs. Park Avenue,” and he needs to live up to his promise to prioritize the public good by implementing pristine ethical standards and appointing civil servants over corporate insiders. The right-wing media is already hard at work stoking fears about corporate influence in the Biden administration, criticizing the appointment of officials from Facebook, Google, and WestExec Advisors. Biden can render these attacks null by refraining from appointing corporate insiders to high-level government jobs. Across the political spectrum, these appointments are highly unpopular and undermine trust in government. Biden’s recently-signed ethics executive order expands on past administration’s ethics commitments by banning golden parachutes and cracking down on shadow lobbying. Still, these commitments fall short of closing the revolving door once and for all. The Biden administration can and should do more to demonstrate its unerring commitment to the public interest.

Header image: “Cranes” by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0

2020 Election/TransitionEthics in GovernmentGovernment Capacity

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