Deep State—Part 4

The importance of integrity

Government has a great deal of power in any society, probably no less so in a first world democracy than in a dictatorship. It can restrict our freedom and take our property, even take our lives, and its operations are mostly outside our daily purview. Eventually, a government will reflect and enforce the values of whomever controls it; in a democracy, that should be we the people.

After conferring on it extensive rights and power, we hope and expect the government will exercise its authority in accordance with our collective will, for our collective benefit. We ask it, as our agent, to represent and effectuate our national standards and values. In my experience, the vast majority of government employees do just that. In fact, they are required to.

Defense Department employees, for example, take periodic certification training in the practical application of Executive Order 12674, an Order that applies to all federal employees and explicates detailed ethical obligations such as these:

It has never been written into law that the federal government’s CEO, the President, is subject to the same rules as other government workers. Apparently, no one thought it necessary. Presidents are assumed to be the apex representatives of the country and its citizens. They are entrusted to control the executive branch of government for the protection and benefit of the entire country. A president who would deliberately corrupt the capability of the professional government to perform its duties, or undermine its public mission with demands to advance illegitimate interests, would do far wider damage to the country than with any single illicit act.

There are two definitions and two ways to think about government integrity. First is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles,” qualities to which most of us aspire, have asked of our leaders, and expected our government to represent. But a second relates to “the state of being whole and undivided.” To have integrity, government’s behavior and our expectations must honestly reflect our values.

We can only expect our government to tell us the truth, respect our rights, not waste our tax dollars, and perform their duties with competence and expertise if we as a society respect and embody truth, honesty, and expertise ourselves. Institutional integrity cannot be established by hypocrisy or without personal integrity at the top. 

Winds of political corruption have been blowing strong through our democracy of late, bending norms and institutions that are largely maintained by government bureaucracy. Notably, most of reported corruption is being committed and directed by elected and politically appointed officials, not by career employees. If we the (voting) people have decided that corruption is acceptable, we must anticipate and accept that a corrupt professional government will follow. If we have given up on Democracy, we should be ready for authoritarian control of government’s vast power for a single individual’s purposes. But if you find the thought of an enormous, powerful, corrupt and authoritarian government as frightening as I do, I hope you will stay vigilant and help protect the independence, expertise, and integrity of government employees and their ability to stand strong for the public interest first and always.

Democracy, Rupublicans, and The Construction of Courage

It’s doubtful anyone wakes up one morning to find themselves suddenly full of courage, not the kind that comes from character. The courage to face our fears, to tell the truth when it’s awkward or costly, or to turn away from temptation and stick with our principles, is constructed from experiences of doing so. Like death from a thousand cuts, strength of character is an accumulation of a thousand choices to do the right thing, rewarded by the increased strength, insight, and self-respect that comes from it.

It is not hyperbole to say American democracy is being mortally threatened by a sociopathic president pathologically compelled to remain in office after losing his election. He is a dangerously sick individual who cannot be expected to know, let alone do the right thing. Can one such person really bring down the country? The answer is an almost unthinkable “maybe,” if those who can stop him won’t.

Who would that be?

Democrats, playing by the rules, have done what they can to oppose the President’s claims to extra-constitutional power; they impeached him and now have defeated him in the election. Republicans blew off the impeachment trial and now are refusing to recognize the election. Even the Supreme Court, with a new majority whose ideology and political agenda is…let’s say unclear, can only opine on the illegality of the president’s actions; they have no power to enforce their rulings against an executive who simply refuses to leave. That leaves the military, but a military expulsion of a sitting president would be a kind of coup and as much a Constitutional failure as an unelected president refusing to leave office.

That brings us back to the Republican Party and Congressional leadership…and courage. Had they been speaking out on behalf of democratic principles all along, they would be better prepared to manage today’s extreme circumstances. Instead, most have cowered, rationalized, and dissembled in the face of Trump’s steadily increasing assaults on norms and laws. Each time they allowed him to lie or claim extra-Constitutional power or abuse his office without challenge, Trump gained more strength from his base and more control over them. As those who spoke against him were systematically purged from the party or professionally ruined, he grew more dangerous. Today, only those planning to retire and Mitt Romney will say Trump lost the election and should leave.

So what are the chances the Republican Party or the Republican controlled Senate will exercise their authority to force Mr. Trump to do his duty and transition the presidency when they have been so afraid to do so to date? This is where I feel uncharacteristically fearful. As Mr. Trump’s willingness and ability to wreak havoc intensifies, it will take more and more courage for individual Republicans to oppose him. It is widely assumed the ever-vindictive Trump will remain politically active and command his cultish base for years to come so the risk of opposition may never go away. My fear is if Mr. Trump continues to insist he is entitled to stay in office, and continues to use his presidential powers to resist removal, the risks of opposing him will grow, and the alternative–to join him in the attempt to assume unconstitutional power—which several Republicans are doing already by not just questioning but denying the election results, will look easier and safer by comparison.

This is where character and courage might determine our national fate in the very near future. As the president tests the waters, looking for ways to press his fantasy of victory into reality, will Republican leadership finally step up and tell the President “no,” that he must go? If they have not exercised the courage to protect the country from the want-to-be dictator so far, will they suddenly find the strength to face Trump’s wrath by opposing him now? We will soon see.

Deep State—Part 3

(This is the third in a planned series of four short essays on the “deep state.” Coincidentally, President Trump today is undermining the professional government by ordering staff to obstruct President Elect Biden’s transition team, firing insufficiently loyal appointees, and planting personal loyalists in traditionally non-political senior executive positions.)

The importance of competence

Hostility toward our professional government is costing our country dearly. As narrow special interests compete for national policy primacy, often the only voice speaking expressly for the national interest is the government itself—the professionals and experts hired to understand and protect those interests. That voice should be clear and respected.

The Covid pandemic has illustrated how complex problems can arise that call for prepared, centralized expertise to prevent catastrophic consequences. Not all are as sudden or dramatic, but there are countless problems and threats to our national interests and security that are being studied and addressed by government agents of all kinds. Knowing this expertise is in place 24/7 allows us to go comfortably about our own lives and sleep at night. The Left and Right can argue all day about whether the invisible hand of capitalism can solve certain problems more efficiently than government, but it’s government to which we assign the duty of watching out for and protecting the nation against threats—big and small, foreign and domestic, physical and economic.

Ironically, the importance of government competence often is most noticeable in its failures, as when the CDC flubs a Corona virus test or the FAA approves a faulty Boing flight computer program. Citizens are rightfully quick to criticize their employees’ mistakes. We should keep in mind, however, that we need the CDC and the FAA and we need them to function well; the solution to performance errors should be to insist on greater competence not less government.

Until all humans evolve to moral perfection anarchy is not a viable option and hoping for government to fail or go away is self-defeating and naïve.  Government is still the mechanism, the infrastructure, through which a democratic society organizes, regulates, and protects itself. The more skillfully it operates, the more well-functioning a society will be. Sabotaging government agencies by slashing budgets and appointing officials hostile to their mission is administratively and economically dumb! It should also be illegal; it’s wasting taxpayers’ money. Instead we should use our democratic processes to demand three qualities from our government:

Effectiveness

Functions of government generally are set by law, making them job duties assigned by the public. Most public service jobs have been deemed necessary, many are essential, and some are existentially critical. People holding these positions should be compensated appropriately and given the support needed to do the job, and their performance should meet the same high standards that would be expected in any large well-functioning private enterprise.

Accountability
Duties assigned to public employees, whether by the Constitution or statute, should be faithfully performed. Poor performance of any legal function by any public servant should not be acceptable. This must include elected and appointed senior executives. A cabinet secretary should be no more exempt from failures to perform the duties of her office than any other salaried federal employee.

Transparency

With few exceptions, performance of all government functions should be open to public scrutiny. Overusing security classifications and executive privilege to hide bad decisions, and ignoring or firing inspectors general to avoid investigation or criticism, for examples, contribute to a culture in which government officials can operate beyond question or even above the law.

If this all seems obvious, it should be. It’s first a question of attitude. Do citizens expect a high functioning government bureaucracy, and will they demand it?  We the people are the government’s board of directors. We elect a president and senators who approve the president’s senior executive appointees. Failures of competence are ultimately our responsibility.

 

The Deep State–Part 2

(This is the second of four short essays on the Deep State being published at bobrack.com or ontheotherhand xyz. Part 2 is being published as the President is rejecting the legitimacy of the 2020 elections)

The importance of an independence

Last week President Trump signed an executive order expanding by hundreds of thousands the number of federal employees whose positions would be exempt from civil service protections. If enacted, career government experts—scientists, lawyers, and administrative professionals in policy influencing position–would be subject to political hiring and firing at the whim of whatever political party is in control of the White House. Thus, presumably, they would come and go with each administration and serve only that administration’s interests and priorities. This would be a huge mistake. Few of the nation’s biggest challenges arise and end within one president’s term, and few such political appointees could have the scope of time and relevant knowledge of a career expert.

From forty years of experience in and around both state and federal government, I have some understanding of the unique challenges involved in managing government functions in a civil service environment. I believe when Donald Trump complains about a “deep state” being out to get him, he is mostly wrong; but when he or any politically ambitious leader complains about government bureaucracy being largely outside their personal control, they are largely correct. And that’s a good thing.

Non-patronage government employees are directed and supervised by their bosses, but they ultimately work for the people their functions are funded to serve. Most take pride in that. Their loyalty and sense of responsibility are to their fellow citizens and the mission they are serving on the citizens’ behalf. While elected executives and their administrations come and go, government staff devote their working lives to learning the context and substance of their jobs. They get good at them. The more dedicated ones get very good at them.

Politicians bent on a personal or partisan agenda can be frustrated by career bureaucrats’ insistence on doing the job they understand needs to be done for the public good. Sometimes that insistence can create resistance to change, sometimes even an inertia that slows or prevents progress. But more often, in my experience, it stabilizes the institution and prevents mistakes with potentially dire consequences the ambitious political leader either doesn’t see or disregards.

Wise political appointees understand the difference between managing within a hierarchical corporate power structure with the singular goal of increasing profits–the private sector–and management of government services for an almost incalculable array of interests. The differences are important in both substance and required management styles. Civil servants have chosen a career rewarded more with stability than opportunity for wealth. Salaries and benefits for entry- and mid-level government positions have traditionally been slightly higher and more secure than comparable private sector jobs. (That may not be as true today.) With little direct control over individual public employees’ remuneration, financial inducements and threats are less availing as motivators than they are in the private sector. The most effective way to lead and motivate that I have seen in government is by example, competence, and a clear commitment to the public good.

American government was designed, as John Adams said, as “a system of laws, not of men.” It’s a resilient, self-correcting system that has functioned remarkably well from almost any perspective. Countries that rely on networks of political and personal relationships, rather than on transparent and widely accepted rules, have lacked our country’s productivity and ability to provide for the care and wellbeing of citizens.

Government workers serve America by tending its accepted systems and rules. We hire them to serve specific legislated mandates rather than personal partisan interests. They are the glue that makes the system a system, and the ballast that keeps the ship upright through political storms.

Past efforts to undermine the political independence of the federal workforce have been stopped by the courts. Efforts to undermine the civil service rules and the Hatch Act, for example, have been mostly stymied. Whether those protections will continue to be honored by a new Supreme Court increasingly influenced by libertarian interests is an important and open question. What I am sure of is that further politicizing the federal bureaucracy will reduce its professionalism and undermine both its commitment and capacity to serve the public interest.

Deep State—Part 1

Introduction

Surveying the dramatic impact of Mr. Trump’s presidency on the nation, I find myself particularly offended by his insistence that the professional federal government exists to serve his personal political needs, and even more by his manipulation of the entire bureaucracy to make it do so. He did the same with the Republican Party, of course, but politicians are independent actors who can choose to participate or not. Not so with government employees. Uniformed or civilian, civil servants have hierarchical chains of command they are professionally obligated to obey until a higher obligation to the country or the Constitution demands otherwise. As I hope to explain in three coming essays, a long career in multiple levels and branches of government tells me much of what Mr. Trump complains of as “deep state” resistance is arising from conflicts between his destructive agenda and government employees’ perceived obligations to their country. And appropriately so.

To help evaluate this perspective, a bit of personal historical context might be helpful.

The earliest exposure to politics and government I can remember was hearing JFK call on Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Patriotism meant service to country. Public service was honorable. Government’s role as economic problem solver and protector of democracy had been set by post-Depression New Deal programs and winning World War II.

Public derision of “government,” began in my lifetime with Ronald Reagan’s cheeky comment about government being the problem, not the solution. It deepened as government’s cultural counterpoint, the “private sector,” regained dominance.  As the pace of economic competition quickened and international commerce grew, government’s bureaucratic processes looked stodgy by comparison. Ayn Rand and libertarians were complaining bitterly that government was standing in the way of capitalism’s readiness to raise all boats and solve all problems. Business attacked labor unions, conflating them with a “bloated” civil service bureaucracy, all of which they said obstructed opportunity and growth.

As businesses and the American economy grew heroically in the latter half of the 20th century,  business leaders began equating capitalism with democracy itself, arguing that any interference with free enterprise was akin to evil socialism or worse, godless communism. The distinction in the public mind between Capitalism as an economic system and Democracy as a system of governance was largely lost. The idea that a government for the people should make rules affecting business practices and distribution of resources was swamped by a nearly religious belief that the invisible hand of capitalism could and would manage society’s needs better without government interference. “What’s good for business is good for America” was a mantra that became a doctrine. As wealth grew increasingly concentrated, the ability of moneyed interests to dictate American policy also grew until today they view the role of government as little more than a tool to advance their private ambitions. This narrow, exploitative view of government is now crudely and clearly expressed in the presidency of self-declared billionaire Donald Trump.

From 1972, when I graduated from law school, to 2011 when I retired from the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, I worked as an executive in two city-county councils of governments, and spent 28 years as a senior executive in the federal judiciary. Those experiences with government workers and systems helped to shape a view of government offered in three essays to follow this one in weekly installments. I believe the idea of a “deep state” is both accurate and apt–not as a secret cabal of self-appointed resisters to a particular political agenda, but as a proudly held belief in service to the country and its people. I hope by the end to convince you to respect and protect public employees as the backbone of democracy

Three Presidents

Three presidents spoke at a funeral
Of love, and courage, and character,
Of better angels,
Lifting a nation’s spirits.

Three presidents,
Different in so many ways,
Admiring another man’s character
For raising a nation’s spirit and
Calling to its better angels.

Three presidents spoke like beacons
To the light within our souls,
Seeking one light
To guide one nation
Out of the dark.

Feeling Useless

I’ve been feeling useless lately, and looking for an explanation. First, I wondered if retirement from a challenging career had caught up with me, but I left my work with the Court ten years ago and this feeling is new, so that was probably not it. Covid isolation was another likely suspect, with its disruption of comfortable patterns and interruption of intimate social intercourse, but wouldn’t that more likely cause feelings of loneliness than of uselessness? It’s not like I’m not still productive in that retiree sort of way—reading and writing, helping friends and neighbors, building and fixing things, etc.–but for some reason that no longer feels like enough. The problem, I’ve decided, is the enormous gap between the problems I see and my ability to help. After a lifetime of problem solving and public service, I no longer feel like part of the solution. I suspect I’m not alone. Continue reading “Feeling Useless”

What I’d Hope Joe Biden Would Say

In Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and The Vile, Winston Churchill leads England through twelve months of incessant German bombing that killed 45,000 Britons and wounded countless more. His responsibilities for mobilizing the material and human resources needed to meet that challenge were extraordinary. By his own example, with oratory that lifted spirits even as it reported hard facts, and with heart wrenching empathy for his nation’s suffering, Churchill inspired his fellow citizens to hold together in resistance to Hitler’s attacks. And all while he was diplomatically nurturing an alliance with the United States he believed would be needed to win the war. The contrast to America’s leadership today is breathtaking. Continue reading “What I’d Hope Joe Biden Would Say”