President Trump has indicated that his administration’s failure, so far, to nominate people to most Senate-confirmed jobs is deliberate. Trump explained: “When I see a story about ‘Donald Trump didn’t fill hundreds and hundreds of jobs,’ it’s because, in many cases, we don’t want to fill those jobs. A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have.”
Maybe this is an after-the-fact rationalization for not having the appointments ready. Of 522 Senate-confirmed jobs, as of Friday he’d nominated 35, slightly behind Obama’s pace and a little ahead of Bush and Clinton, according to the Washington Post’s real-time tracker. But if he really is serious that this is by design, his grand plan will backfire in a way that could be great for the country.
Most of the Senate-confirmed political appointees are the managers of departments and the decision-makers in particular functional units. They’re jobs like “Under Secretary for Food Safety” or “Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.” It’s like saying you want to make the basketball team function better by cutting the coach.
When those jobs are not filled, they are taken over by “acting” officials. Who are these people? Career “bureaucrats!” Ironic, ain’t it? But in my government experience—for the Corporation for National Service and the Federal Communications Commission—the civil servants who rose to the top levels are often extraordinarily talented and committed to the success of the programs.
If Trump wants to change things, he should put his own people in there, rather than having the government run by civil servants. In that sense, Democrats should stop mocking Trump for this, praise his careful deliberative style, and hope he never gets around to it.
Of course there is incompetence and duplication throughout the government, as there are in all large organizations. In my experience, the problems—bad hombres and silly org charts—tended to be spread throughout the agencies in ways that would require shrewd surgery, new civil service laws, and legislative reorganizations. For that, you’d need really smart political appointees at the head of the functional units—the people he’s decided not to appoint.