What I Saw Inside The DC Swamp Proved Trump Needs Four More Years Of Draining

What I Saw Inside The DC Swamp Proved Trump Needs Four More Years Of Draining

President Trump was quite right to want to drain the swamp—not just DC lobbying and cronyism but also the bloated administrative staffs from agency to agency.
Adam Kissel
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At this point, nobody is surprised when people from the ruling class announce their opposition to President Trump, regardless of their claimed party affiliation. The Resistance to Trump has comprised numerous members of the administrative state. Perhaps the most recent prominent example of this is the mid-level federal bureaucrat Miles Taylor, who flamboyantly outed himself as the author of anonymous anti-Trump missives, including leaks to the press that they falsely characterized as coming from a “high-level” Trump official.

Other examples of such figures abound. My friendly former colleague at the U.S. Department of Education, the Democrat and Common Core booster Jason Botel, unsurprisingly also recently announced that he is voting for Joe Biden. Yet I was surprised to see him complain about working with the Executive Office of the President (EOP).

I served in the U.S. Department of Education for more than a year as a deputy assistant secretary, was responsible for more than $2 billion of annual spending, and had about 100 staff. Not only were all of my experiences with EOP very good—even my one substantive conversation with Omarosa Manigault—but the real ineptitude came from career staff in the department. Let me begin to count the ways.

Perhaps the most illustrative example involved a human resources staffer whose own business card was spelled incorrectly. She did not realize it until I pointed it out. (An open records request would prove it.)

This same official and her colleague sat me down to explain how “merit” bonuses work at the department. I was told that staff should promise to do only about 75 percent of their work in their annual statement of goals. That way, when they do 85 percent of their jobs, they could get “exceeds expectations” on their reviews for annual bonuses.

Many federal agency staffers, just as in the rest of the world, see merit bonuses as entitlements and cry to the heavens if they fail to get one. So, it avoids headaches to make the bonuses easy enough to “earn” that failing to do 15 percent of one’s job comes close enough.

Furthermore, the federal bureaucracy’s principle of “redundancy” in employment provides no help. Redundancy does not mean that person X and person Y are qualified to do one another’s job if one of them is out of the office. Instead, the principle states that there should be two people with X’s duties in case one is temporarily out.

This is why so many staff appear to think that they only need to fulfill about 50 percent of their job description. Indeed, my top 20 performers could have done all the work, the middle 60 were there for redundancy, and the bottom 20 were worth less than zero, not because they were “resisters” (although many were) but because they knew they could get away with it.

Here’s how open career staff positions in the federal government are filled in reality. The existing staff know that an opening will be listed on a certain day, so they alert their family and friends to be ready to apply. Then, for the sake of efficiency, the human resources office cuts off the number of applications at, say, the first 100. Too late for everyone else.

Higher-level staffers outside my sphere were much more responsible. Unfortunately, many also were resisters, leakers, criers (especially at the Office for Civil Rights), or slow-walkers. A bureaucrat resister need only insist that the “standard process” be followed, and gullible newcomers will squander years before their initiatives are completed. I watched it happen more than once.

Another category includes the staffers who believe they can wait out the reformers (regardless of party) so they can continue to do minimal work. Once a political colleague was mistaken for a staffer and was explicitly told this should be his work strategy.

At the policy level, the core problem is that many career policy staff refuse to accept that elections have policy consequences. This is why I strongly support President Donald Trump’s recent executive order to ensure that career policy staff actually promote the policies of the administration voters selected, or be disciplined or replaced.

These issues are not insignificant beefs. They apply not just to boring matters like the dozen people who need to sign off on travel reimbursements. These issues also apply to emergency programs. Kids and teachers are worse off when career staff won’t work. “We suck!” a career-staff colleague correctly observed, once it became clear that an “emergency” relief program was not being treated like an emergency. Emergency aid that works at the usual speed of government does not get anywhere in time.

I have much more to say, but you get the idea.

I feel sorry for the head of human resources, who has to deal with all of this plus all of the union grievances. I had a couple of my own run-ins with employees who would have been fired anywhere else, but who of course kept their jobs.

The HR head who was there at the same time as I was a shining star. She worked for the secretary and knew it. When we cut off people’s five-day-a-week telework (pre-COVID), she understood why and implemented it. When we followed protocol to move career managers around to broaden their experience, she made sure it happened.

In short, going into government as a libertarian, I expected my prior beliefs to be vindicated. But I return from government with the message that such issues are more deeply true than anyone who has never been there might imagine.

President Trump was quite right to want to drain the swamp—not just DC lobbying and cronyism but also the bloated administrative staff from agency to agency. He achieved a lot, but a lot more draining remains. This is one among many reasons the president has my vote and I would work for him again.

Adam Kissel was deputy assistant secretary for higher-education programs in the U.S. Education Department from 2017-2018.

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