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Trump Versus the Bureaucracy

The civilian bureaucracy voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump. These people can make a lot of trouble for the next president in a lot of ways.

Bastiaan Slabbers/ZUMA Press/NewscomBastiaan Slabbers/ZUMA Press/NewscomThere are a lot of hot battles to watch out for in 2017. President Trump versus Congress. President Trump versus the press. President Trump versus the Democrats. President Trump versus the Chinese, Mexico, Iran, and the Islamic State. But one of the potentially most explosive of all will be Trump versus the bureaucracy.

The executive branch civilian workforce numbers about 2.7 million; the uniformed military are another 1.5 million. Against that more or less permanent federal workforce of roughly 4 million people, President Trump gets to fill maybe 4,000 jobs. For the math geniuses out there, that's roughly one Trump representative for every 1,000 federal employees. Another way to put it is that the presidential election changes not 1 percent, but one tenth of one percent of the federal workforce. And it will be six months to a year before even those political appointees are fully vetted, confirmed, cleared, and in place, maybe longer until they figure out what is going on.

Theoretically, at least, the president and his cabinet secretaries and top White House staffers are "in charge." But any teacher who has tried to control a classroom of 20 children, any parent who has tried to get three children dressed and out the door in time for school, any business manager who has tried to get their direct reports to do anything knows that it's hard enough to get even a small group of people to move in one direction.

The military may be used to taking orders. And the civilian bureaucracy may understand, in some civics class sort of way, that its job is to serve the president in implementing the laws made by Congress. Lots of these federal offices have little framed portraits of the president of the United States on the wall somewhere. Those pictures do get changed every four years or so.

But even so, it's a very thin layer of authority. It's a point that's been stressed to me emphatically and repeatedly by people who have served as political appointees in government.

A lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Robert Behn, writes abut this as "the law of diminishing control: the larger any organization becomes, the weaker is the control over its actions exercised by those at the top." He says bureaucrats speak of "residents" and "tourists"— the residents are the bureaucrats; the tourists are political appointees, just passing through. Or, Behn writes, a member of the permanent government refers to himself or herself as a "We Be" — as in, "We be here before you're here. We be here after you're here."

The civilian bureaucracy, after all, voted overwhelmingly against Trump. The District of Columbia voted 91 percent for Hillary Clinton. Washington's Virginia suburbs, where federal workers live, voted for her, too: she won 77 percent of the vote in Arlington County and 65 percentof the vote in Fairfax County. In Montgomery County, Maryland, another Washington suburb full of federal employees, 76 percent of the vote went to Clinton. In Prince George's County, Maryland, another Washington suburb full of federal employees, the presidential vote was 89 percent for Clinton.

These people can make a lot of trouble for Trump in a lot of ways.

They can leak to the press. It's not a coincidence that The New York Times is suddenly running full-page ads promoting its acceptance of confidential news leaks. These ads did not appear immediately after President Obama was elected.

The bureaucrats can just work more slowly. That's not a full-fledged strike like the air traffic controllers during the Reagan administration, but more, instead, appearing to work while quietly doing whatever is possible to undercut the administration's policy initiatives.

They can try to capture their political appointees by explaining, in great sophisticated detail, why Trump's policies would never work, and why the political appointees would be much better off instead continuing the policies of the previous administration.

If the Trump appointees get fed up with any of that and attempt to fire the bureaucrats, good luck to them. It's not The Apprentice, where Trump could say "you're fired." Civil service protections, "whistleblower" rules, union grievance procedures, and anti-discrimination laws mean that in government, such clashes are often time-consuming and more trouble than they are worth.

That's all one perspective from which to view the claims that Trump's choices for top jobs are somehow extreme or radical. They'd better be, because the forces of inertia are so strong in Washington that to change or improve anything at all, someone has to come in with an aggressive agenda and a lot of energy.

Photo Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • kinnath||

    Cut off funding. Starve it to death.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Trump has the trifecta for 2 years. He should make it clear that should the bureaucracy undermine his administration, his first budget will be a bit more spartan than they are used to.

  • kbolino||

    He's got 2 1/2 branches, not the full 3. While his appointments will likely go off without much of a hitch (11th hour scandals notwithstanding), the filibuster still remains for "major" legislation.

  • Phelps||

    Budget cuts can be passed via reconciliation with no filibuster.

  • Last giant||

    A CEO once gave me this advice "you want to lead a department, identify the weak link and identify the ring leader, and fire them first 2 weeks, you won't be respected otherwise"
    Stalin was the most successful manager in history, every book of political philosophy predicts he should have been assassinated in the first 2 years, instead he ruled unopposed for 20 years and died happily in his sleep. His secret: purges! Lots of purges.

    If Trump wants to lead he should create a public scuffle, have th department push back and then when he can't get what he wants: ABOLUSH THE DEPARTMENT. Then pick two more to wreck with it at random. Give a tax break to coincide with it, shout drain the swamp, and every one will get the hint.

    I have two measures of a president: did government revenues go up or down? did the population of DC go up or down?
    Both should go down.

    The best possible president is one who uses the football to nuke DC.

  • NoVaNick||

    "did government revenues go up or down? did the population of DC go up or down?"

    Yes and Yes for the past three administrations at least.

  • Harun||

    The Chinese saying is "kill the chicken to scare the monkey."

  • {|}===[|}:;:;:;:;:;:;:>||

    If they're part of an executive agency they serve at the pleasure of the president. This particular President-elect seems to have no historical issue with terminating those employees who do not perform to his specifications. Given he's already asked for a list of names It might be entirely unnecessary to starve the beast.

  • SIV||

    Another way to put it is that the presidential election changes not 1 percent, but one tenth of one percent of the federal workforce.

    Which is why a spoils system is vastly superior to a career civil service.

  • Nativist, Racist & Xenophobe||

    Yep. Whatever it's other failings, at least the peasants have a chance of actually getting the government they voted for.

  • Harun||

    I think that, at the time, the spoils system was very corrupt, and professionalizing it made sense then.

    But over time, institutions change, rules change and calcify, opportunists figure out ways to do handle the levers, etc.

  • Juice||

    In Prince George's County, Maryland, another Washington suburb full of federal employees, the presidential vote was 89 percent for Clinton.

    It's actually more full of immigrants and poor people, really.

  • kbolino||

    My only experience with P.G. County was going into a lunch joint outside of Upper Marlboro that had a prominent sign saying "an unarmed man is a subject, an armed man is a citizen" (or something of similar effect).

    I'm guessing this was *not* representative of the rest of the county.

  • lafe.long||

    Or, Behn writes, a member of the permanent government refers to himself or herself as a "We Be" — as in, "We be here before you're here. We be here after you're here."

    +1 ebonics

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    That must have started with the Freedmen's Bureau.

  • Threedoor||

    It's just like the army, E6 and above. I no reup cause dem.

  • Jimbo||

    Comment on CNN about the Berlin truck tragedy:

    John Taylor
    "100-1 says a Muslim attack- Merkel is finished. Obama has another 30 days in office to apologize to the Muslims for the damage to their truck."

    Comedy GOLD, Jerry!

  • Nativist, Racist & Xenophobe||

    Europe will still be cursing Angela Merkel long after Adolf Hitler is a forgotten man.

  • ||

    Obama has another 30 days in office to apologize to the Muslims for the damage to their truck.

    It would seem native Westerners were holding them back.

  • Steve G||

    B-b-but I just moved to ban burkas!! See I care!
    /AM

  • Juice||

    The bureaucrats can just work more slowly.

    Sounds good to me.

  • Microaggressor||

    Yeah, I'm not seeing the downsides.

  • Harun||

    They work slowly to implement reforms or to deregulate.

    Not so good if you want change.

    I'm sure they also sabotage it, too not just slow down.

  • Pan Zagloba "The Stickler"||

    So many Yes, Minister quotes are appropriate, the whole article could have been nothing but them.

    Like, say

    Bernard: If it's our job to carry out government policies, shouldn't we believe in them?
    Sir Humphrey: Oh, what an extraordinary idea! I have served 11 governments in the past 30 years. If I'd believed in all their policies, I'd have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to joining it. I'd have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel and of denationalising it and renationalising it. Capital punishment? I'd have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I'd have been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac, but above all, I would have been a stark-staring raving schizophrenic!
  • Pay up, Palin's Buttplug!||

    And this:

    James Hacker: The Opposition aren't the opposition.
    Annie Hacker: No, of course not, silly of me. They're just called the opposition.
    James Hacker: They're only the opposition in exile. The Civil Service is the opposition in residence.

    It was a perfect moment to have quoted Yes Minister.

    Ira Stoll, I am disappointed.

  • Playa Manhattan.||

    Hit them where it hurts:
    the penis

  • Jimbo||

    You are SOOOO immature.

  • {|}===[|}:;:;:;:;:;:;:>||

    +1 right in the dick

  • Juice||

    "whistleblower" rules

    We've seen just what kind of teeth those have had under Obama, which is none.

  • Raston Bot||

    this article assumes feds give a shit about their jobs.

  • The Last American Hero||

    They don't, but they give a shit about their paychecks.

  • bartzman86||

    So it's basically every episode of "Yes Minister" ever made?

  • Tuan Jim||

    Let's get more current..."The Thick of It" - absolutely brilliant!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It's not a coincidence that The New York Times is suddenly running full-page ads promoting its acceptance of confidential news leaks.

    If you like your whistleblower you can keep your whistleblower.

  • ||

    I vow that on the first day I am elected Supreme Overlord of New Litertopia, outside of the military, I will cut this number from 2.5 million to 250. No way we need more than 250 worthless government employees. Anyway, after the paper shredders have been fired up for a few days, there won't be anything for them to do. Maybe the number goes to 0. The ones who don't get real jobs, I'll put to work in the monocle factory or blood diamond mines.

  • Threedoor||

    Paper shredders? Think bigger. Supercharged wood chipers.

  • ||

    Doesn't the 'Made In New Libertopia' label imply 'blood' whether it's diamonds or monocles?

    Other nations chose to give jobs to homeless people and to give old people really bitchin' health insurance for free, we chose to throw them all under a bus and use our inheritance to turn a profit.

  • mr burns||

    Move the more hostile and useless sub-agencies to other states like alaska, montana and north dakota , repurposing empty real estate , make it part of the infrastructure bill .

  • ant1sthenes||

    Yes, it's just preparing those agencies for climate change.

  • Darth Squirrel||

    And since things like heating and air conditioning make Baby Gaia cry, they shouldn't mind doing without them.

  • spqr2008||

    I forget who wrote it, but someone was commenting that the other great idea was to use old factories in the Rust Belt to house government agencies, with no improvements to them at all, no equipment or anything. Then they can't perform their jobs, and we can fire them for lack of performance of their jobs.

  • John||

    Working slower is not exactly an effective technique in resisting a President who wants to cut regulations.

  • mememine69||

    Hillarycrat;
    Voting against changing to a Trump administration left you defending the traditional system you had said you hated so much. How did it feel to no longer be a rebellious progressive liberal following the radical voice? You Hillarycrats are the new neocons defending the system.
    Nice work girls.

  • Dilligaf||

    Well the one thing Trump was supposed to be good at was firing people. If you put someone in charge of a division who is effective at firing the worthless dead-weight and the intentional monkey-wrenchers you have inherited then problem solved. If not, fire them and find someone who can. Easy-Peasy Right?

  • Azathoth!!||

    The entrenched civil service needs to be eradicated.

  • Longtobefree||

    You don't have to fire someone; transfer them to the new office (a Quonset hut) in Butte MT, Bismark ND (for winter, no heat) or Big Bend TX (for summer, no air conditioning), along with the 50% pay cut required to balance the budget, and have a cup of coffee. No relocation assistance, of course; budget cuts.
    Or just come up with a need to "study" the mass transit safety; of course suspending the service for safety reasons until the study is complete. If absolutely necessary, close the bridges for homeland security purposes. The "right" to cross a bridge is no more sacred than the "right" to fly.
    Any really motivated manager can work around a measly bureaucrat.

  • bflat879||

    I believe the simple solution (some would call it simplistic solution) is to dissolve all government employee unions. They've proven, through the actions they've either taken directly or condoned by political appointees, that politics has found its way into the government bureaucracy. It's time to remove the unions from the equation.

  • Tituspullo||

    The first thing Congress should pass is a law outlawing federal employee unions...

  • Zexufang||

    As to -
    President Trump versus the entrenched Democrat Party controlled PERMANENT Federal bureaucracy (The Alphabet Government - EPA, FCC, NOAA, OSHA, FTC, etc...)

    First abolish public unions.
    Current public unions do not serve a public good.
    Their sole purpose is to funnel money back to the Democrat Party.

    Decimate the Federal Bureaucracy with budget cuts.
    10% per year for FOUR years.

    Eliminate the rule making POWER of federal bureaucrats.
    That is - all "suggested" rule changes by the federal bureaucracy MUST be submitted to Congress for approval.
    I say that because NOW a federal bureaucrat can arbitrarily change rules that has the effect of law. I never voted for a bureaucrat so why give them POWER?

    That is all.

    That is all

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