Trump Isn’t Draining the Swamp, He’s Drowning Diplomacy

For years now Republicans have been selling the idea that government ought to be run more like a business. It seems clear that a lot of people bought into that idea and voted for Trump because they assumed (mistakenly) that he had been the CEO of a successful business empire. Trump proceeded to fill his cabinet with corporate CEO’s because, as he said, he doesn’t want poor people running the economy.

One of those CEO’s is Rex Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil, who is now Secretary of State. Max Bermann worked at Foggy Bottom for six years and writes that, under Tillerson’s leadership, “the deconstruction of the State Department is underway.” He says that, while the lack of senior political appointees has gotten a lot of attention, what is happening to the career workforce who keep the place functioning on a day-to-day basis also has him concerned. Here are some of the specific steps Tillerson has taken that have hollowed out the workforce:

  • canceled the incoming class of foreign service officers,
  • unceremoniously pushed out senior officers,
  • dismissed State’s equivalent of an officer reserve—retired FSOs, who are often called upon to fill State’s many short-term staffing gaps,
  • instituted a rule that three people must depart before office managers can make one hire, and
  • blocked all lateral transfers within the department.

In other words, Tillerson isn’t reorganizing, he’s downsizing.

Bermann considers what Tillerson’s motives might be for doing this.

What is motivating Tillerson’s demolition effort is anyone’s guess. He may have been a worldly CEO at ExxonMobil, but he had precious little experience in how American diplomacy works. Perhaps Tillerson, as a D.C. and foreign policy novice, is simply being a good soldier, following through on edicts from White House ideologues like Steve Bannon. Perhaps he thinks he is running State like a business. But the problem with running the State Department like a business is that most businesses fail—and American diplomacy is too big to fail.

What is clear, however, is that there is no pressing reason for any of these cuts.

The allusion to Steve Bannon is likely related to the fact that, in a presentation at CPAC, Trump’s senior advisor listed the three main goals of this administration—one of which was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” That is the part of this president’s agenda that Gilad Edelman addressed in his cover story for the current edition of the Washington Monthly titled, “Trump’s Plan to Make Government Slower, Costlier, and More Dysfunctional.”

One item on [Trump’s] agenda, however, is moving right along: cutting the size of the federal workforce. You don’t hear as much about this one, in part because Trump himself doesn’t talk much about it. But it’s clearly a priority—one the administration has billed as a way for Trump to make good on his promise to “drain the swamp.” His “Contract with the American Voter,” released a couple of weeks before last November’s election, began with “Six measures to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, DC.” Item number two was a hiring freeze “to reduce the federal workforce through attrition.”

In other words, we’re hearing about this deconstruction at the State Department, but it is an agenda that is happening all over the federal government.

As Edelman suggests, this effort “plays on a narrative the American people have been hearing for decades: the federal workforce is bloated.” But that is simply not true.

As a share of the U.S. workforce, the federal civil service is actually smaller than at any time since before World War II. In absolute terms, it has been about the same size for half a century. In 1966, there were about 2.1 million executive branch civil servants (not including Postal Service employees). Since then, the country’s population has increased from 196 million to 323 million. The annual gross domestic product, along with annual government spending, more than quadrupled. And the workforce? In 2016, there were still only 2.1 million federal employees.

Typically what Republicans have done is try to starve the federal government of financial resources. That is what anti-taxer Grover Norquist was suggesting when he talked about shrinking government until it can be drowned in the bath tub. Based on their support for tax cuts and the budget the Trump administration submitted to Congress, their deconstruction efforts will also fall along those traditional Republican lines.

But they aren’t waiting for that to happen. What we’re seeing in the State Department demonstrates that their plans are well underway already. Bermann points to the long-term damage that will be the result.

This is inflicting long-term damage to the viability of the American diplomacy—and things were already tough. State has been operating under an austerity budget for the past six years since the 2011 Budget Control Act. Therefore, when Tillerson cuts, he is largely cutting into bone, not fat. The next administration won’t simply be able to flip a switch and reverse the damage. It takes years to recruit and develop diplomatic talent.

A competent CEO recognizes the difference between fat and bone. She also is aware of the kind of talent necessary for her organization to function successfully and plans ahead to develop those resources. Obviously none of that is true when it comes to Donald Trump and his crew of CEOs.

“If they want to cripple government and eventually drown it in the bathtub, they’re well on their way. In the process, things like U.S. diplomacy are drowning as well.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.