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It has never been easy to be a public official in the United States. In contrast to other rich democracies in Europe and Asia, bureaucrats are not held in high esteem. In Germany, Japan, France, or Britain, the country’s best and brightest aspire to public service, whereas in the U.S. they go to the private sector or, if they are public spirited, into the NGO world rather than government service. Conservatives in particular have long derided “pointy-headed bureaucrats” who today have morphed into a “deep state” that is seeking to subvert the personification of the people’s will, President Donald Trump.
As a result, American public service is under grave threat. It has been heavily politicized during the first Trump term, and in a second may deteriorate rapidly as cronyism, corruption, and incompetence become the new norms.
This is immensely concerning. American government—indeed, all governments everywhere—depends on the efforts of competent officials who are loyal not to the politician who appointed them but to a broader public interest. This loyalty is encapsulated in the United States by the oath that higher-ranking officials take to defend the U.S. Constitution, rather than to serve the president who appointed them. While public officials do have political preferences—how could they not?—vast numbers of them go to work every day believing that they are neutrally serving the public interest rather than a particular political party. Consider NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Reserve, the Forest Service, the Social Security Administration, or the uniformed military, all integral parts of the federal government.
But under Trump, no department or agency appears secure. In his first term, Trump has criticized his own intelligence community, the FBI, the Justice Department, the National Security Council, and the State Department for seeking to undermine him. The Federal Reserve and its chairman, Jerome Powell, have been constant targets of a president wanting the Fed to inflate the money supply to help his reelection chances. Trump has intervened to overturn the military’s punishment of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, and tried to influence a Defense Department decision to award a multibillion-dollar contract to Microsoft rather than the target of his ire, Amazon. Even a local outpost of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration came under attack for disputing the president’s false assertion that Hurricane Dorian was threatening Alabama. Trump’s disdain for public service is reflected in the huge number of senior positions, including ones like secretary of defense, that have been left unfilled for extended periods of time.
Perhaps the most dangerous of Trump’s interventions concern the actions he has taken toward the Department of Justice. Trump seems not to have the slightest understanding of the rule of law, believing that the law should serve his interests rather than the reverse. During the 2016 campaign he urged criminal prosecution of his political rival Hillary Clinton, and later pushed his loyal attorney general, William Barr, to investigate his own department over the Mueller investigation. Barr has questioned the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for looking into the activities of Trump’s friend Rudy Giuliani and the Trump Organization. Most recently, the president tweeted criticisms of the sentencing guidelines handed down after the conviction of his friend Roger Stone, leading to the resignations of four prosecutors involved in the case. The deference of the senior leadership of the Justice Department to his wishes has sent shivers down the spine of every federal prosecutor in the country.
The rule of law is not some physical mechanism that limits the authority of powerful officials. It ultimately depends on the political power of other institutions in our complex constitutional system. When Republicans in the U.S. Senate acquitted Trump in his impeachment trial without hearing further witnesses, they were, in effect, telling him that it was okay to use the power of the U.S. government to promote his own election chances. Since his acquittal, he has behaved more overtly like a mafia boss, using his authority to punish enemies and reward friends. If he is reelected and the Republicans continue to hold on to the Senate, the hunt for disloyal officials will escalate. The president will truly feel that he has the mandate to do whatever he wishes, like having his attorney general initiate criminal prosecutions against his Democratic opponents. He will be safe in the knowledge that the Senate will not object.
It is not as if the federal government was a competent, finely tuned machine prior to Trump’s election. The Progressive Era project of professionalizing public service, begun at the turn of the 20th century, got only so far before the antistatism of American politics halted and reversed it. Today, a change in administrations, even within the same party, leads to the turnover of roughly 4,000 political appointees, compared to the mere handful that change in European and Asian parliamentary democracies. In the State Department, it is hard for a foreign service officer to rise to the rank of assistant secretary or ambassador given the number of political appointees claiming these positions.
Politicization of the government today takes many forms. Over the past decade, nearly one-third of the new hires in the federal government have been military veterans, due to the congressionally mandated Veterans’ Preference program. This policy is understandable in light of America’s wars in the Mideast, but it does not necessarily provide the best pool of applicants. Federal contracting is subject to myriad rules requiring minority, female, Native American, and small-business preferences. One of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s relatives, for example, was the beneficiary of a Native American preference, despite his extremely tangential relationship to that group.
While many Americans believe that the size of the U.S. government has expanded relentlessly over the decades, we have no more full-time federal employees than we did in the 1960s, and today the government is no larger than it was 60 years ago. Both Republicans and Democrats have participated in the charade that they are holding back the government’s size by replacing civil servants with legions of contractors, whose activities are far less transparent and accountable, and more costly.
The long-term consequence has been the erosion of the prestige of public service and an accompanying decline in the numbers of young people willing to enter it. Paul Volcker, whose lifetime passion was promotion of public service, led two commissions (in 1990 and 2002) that documented the aging and declining morale of the federal workforce. In the time since the second Volcker Commission, the problem has only grown worse. What idealistic young person today would want to join the State Department or the EPA and find themselves working for a political operative who didn’t believe in the central mission of the agency, and was unwilling to back employees who did?
In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt note that democratic regression today does not take the form of a military coup but, rather, unfolds as the piecemeal erosion of democratic norms over an extended period of time. Donald Trump did not likely start out wanting to be an authoritarian leader; instead, he expected that he could run the country like a large family business. Since then he has come up against the Constitution’s checks and balances and has fought relentlessly to get around them. One of these checks is the existence of a neutral civil service.
Americans do not need to look far to see what Trump might do to this institution during a second term. In recent days, Trump has put in place as director of national intelligence a political supporter with no background in intelligence because he didn’t like the IC’s conclusion that Russia was interfering in the 2020 election. His newest national security adviser has also publicly claimed not to have seen any information supporting this view. If Trump wins reelection, we may see an EPA chief who asserts that global warming is a hoax, a CDC head who claims that the novel coronavirus was a Chinese plot, or a surgeon general who says the anti-vaxxers have a point.
The U.S. federal bureaucracy has weaknesses: It is too rigid and too rule bound, and it fails to attract the best talent. In an ideal world we would undertake a major reform of U.S. public administration and implement a 21st-century version of the 1883 Pendleton Act, which mandated, among other things, that federal jobs be allocated by merit. But under the current circumstances, it will be enough to fight a rearguard action in defense of classic public service as it exists today, warts and all.