King George III’s bureaucrats, whom Thomas Jefferson decried in the Declaration of Independence as “swarms of officers” who “harass our people and eat out their substance,” would have envied the job protection of federal employees today. In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump called for something very controversial among the chattering classes of Washington DC: to treat government employees as though they work for us rather than the other way ‘round.
The president said, “I call on Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workings and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” Following through on this simple promise to make a government job more like the ones the rest of us have will require the president and Congress to undo more than a century of misguided, anti-democratic, and unconstitutional laws governing the civil service.
Paid By Taxpayers to Resist Election Results
In November 2016, Washington was abuzz with talk of “landing teams,” as though transitioning from a Democratic administration to a Republican one was akin to landing at Omaha Beach. After Trump’s election, his employees in the executive branch openly declared their intention to “resist” by undermining his policies. Republican insiders bemoaned the slow appointments of people to political office within the administration, knowing that even a full political staff guiding a hostile department is much like the rudder of a sailboat trying to turn the Titanic.
That’s because the bulk of the civil service—2.8 million bureaucrats—has become a permanent class of powerbrokers, totally unaccountable to the winds of democratic change. Regardless of whether the man who sits in the Oval Office is President Trump or President Obama, the functions of the executive branch agencies carry on in much the same way as they did before.
As Congress debated the Pendleton Act in 1883, the first of many laws over the next century that added layers of job protection for government employees, they thought they were correcting the excesses of the spoils system. They could never have dreamed of the kind of system we have today, where federal employees get two civil trial-level appeals before a Merit Board (including discovery and the calling of witnesses), and where it takes years to fire a bureaucrat convicted of a felony he committed in the course of doing his job.
But incompetence and corruption are the least of the problems with the modern civil service. With 95-99 percent of political donations from government employees going to Hillary Clinton in the last election, it looks less like a system of apolitical administrators and more like an arm of the Democratic Party.
This Is a Government Gone Rogue
Former Internal Revenue Service director Lois Lerner faces almost no consequences for using the administrative power of the agency against her fellow citizens, and IRS employees were happy to do it, because the Tea Party was their enemy too. The Bureau of Land Management conducted what its own department review called a “punitive” and “ego-driven” political campaign against the Bundy family (now let off on their own crimes because the courts uncovered such gross BLM malfeasance), including mocking their Mormon beliefs during questioning.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Scientific Integrity Official” launched a department investigation into whether the president’s appointed cabinet member, Scott Pruitt, was really the right choice for the agency. The recent revelations about the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice—the text-message plotting and reliance on campaign-produced memos—should, among other horrifying prospects, leave little doubt about where many of the national security leaks during the Trump administration have been coming from.
Civil service protections were supposed to make government administration less political. Instead, they have created a system that grows government and advances left-wing causes regardless of who the people elect. Even our most conservative presidents burn energy and political capital fighting their own departments to a standstill, while career bureaucrats undermine their policies and wait out their terms, ready to pick right back up again under the next administration. As then-candidate Trump said in his election campaign, the game is rigged.
Left-wing outlets will, of course, frantically oppose any effort to level the playing field. “Donald Trump Just Asked Congress to End the Rule of Law,” is the hysterical Slate headline in response to Trump’s mere mention of civil service reform. The truth, of course, is that making those who work in the executive branch accountable to elected officials—who are then accountable to We the People, as our Constitution intended—restores republican governance rather than undermines it.
If President Trump really wants to drain the swamp, he will work with Congress to deconstruct the web of laws that makes government office practically a species of property. In doing so, he will reestablish constitutional governance in the executive branch and ensure that whatever message the American people wish to send to Washington, it will actually be heard by those who ostensibly work for them.