(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.