Trump and Tillerson Are Gutting the State Department for No Good Reason

One of the many problems with the constant daily hair-raising outrages of Donald Trump and Republicans like Roy Moore, is the number of serious scandals and malfeasances that slip by almost unnoticed.

Such is the story mostly buried this weekend of Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson’s decimation of the State Department. It is a move that makes no sense, is not desired even by the extremist Republican Congress, and won’t even save any money. It is an action of ignorance, spite and stupidity that harm American interests and the cause of democracy worldwide.

From the New York Times:

The State Department will soon offer a $25,000 buyout to diplomats and staff members who quit or take early retirements by April, officials confirmed on Friday.

The decision is part of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s continuing effort to cut the ranks of diplomats and Civil Service officers despite bipartisan resistance in Congress. Mr. Tillerson’s goal is to reduce a department of nearly 25,000 full-time American employees by 8 percent, which amounts to 1,982 people.

To reach that number, he has already frozen hiring, reduced promotions, asked some senior employees to perform clerical duties that are normally relegated to lower-level staff members, refused to fill many ambassadorships and senior leadership jobs, and fired top diplomats from coveted posts while offering low-level assignments in their place. Those efforts have crippled morale worldwide.

And why? Because Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and level massive cuts across all non-defense departments without the foggiest clue what they do or why.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress wholly rejected the proposed budget cuts, choosing to fund the State Department at mostly the same level as in previous years. But much to their consternation, Tillerson is going ahead with the pointless and counterproductive exercise nonetheless. Donald Trump doesn’t care: he literally doesn’t think the State Department does much of anything at all, and recently said in the fashion of the Sun King’s that he was the only one that mattered. If Tillerson knows better, he’s not giving any indication of it.

It goes without saying that the State Department does, in fact, do a great deal to keep America safe. It is at least as crucial for world stability and the well-being of American citizens as the Pentagon, and comes at a far lower cost. And while some bloat exists in any organization, by and large the State Department is actually significantly understaffed.

The only possible benign motivation for the cuts would simply be to save money, but it won’t even accomplish that. Beyond the obvious argument that reductions in diplomacy spending will likely mean far more costly military spending down the road, it won’t even reduce departmental spending in the short term.

That’s because much of the work must still get done regardless, except at higher cost via spending on outside contractors. The Washington Monthly‘s own Gilad Edelman wrote at length about this problem earlier this summer:

The Trump/GOP effort to shrink the civil service plays on a narrative the American people have been hearing for decades: the federal workforce is bloated. As Mulvaney’s guidance put it, there are “too many Federal employees stuck in a system that is not working for the American people.” Press secretary Sean Spicer, announcing Trump’s executive order in January, explained that the hiring freeze “counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.”

The only problem with this narrative is that it is the exact opposite of the truth. 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.

There’s no rule that says the number of civil servants has to rise in lockstep with the population or the economy. Many federal jobs in the 1960s were clerical positions that computers have made obsolete. But still. In 1966, there was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Department of Homeland Security, no Federal Emergency Management Agency. Medicare and Medicaid had been signed into law just a year earlier. It’s hard to believe that the same number of people we had in 1966 can run such a radically larger government enterprise.

And, in fact, they don’t.

While the number of federal employees has basically flatlined for a half century, the government has ballooned if you include another group in your tally: private contractors. As the size and scope of federal programs grew, but the number of civil servants stayed fixed, that labor had to get done by someone. Congress’s answer has increasingly been to contract with the private sector. So when Trump and the Republicans say they’re going to shrink government by cutting federal workers, do a mental autocorrect. What they’re really saying is, we’re going to be shoveling a lot more money out the door to federal contractors.

Not that Trump and Tillerson care. We know that saving money isn’t really the point here, anyway. Donald Trump doesn’t care a whit about reducing the deficit or saving taxpayer dollars. He sees a liberal “deep state” conspiracy against pro-business white people operating in various government departments, especially those dealing with foreign policy. He doesn’t understand why they exist or what they do. His actions are indiscriminate and punitive, arising from both ignorance and malice. It’s a scandal that in a sane world would occupy the political world for weeks.

But we can’t even focus on it even for a few hours, because the President is too busy dishing out schoolyard taunts to nuclear-armed dictators and the Republican Party is set to send a child molester to the U.S. Senate. The situation is both terrifying and farcically absurd.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.