House Majority Leader Calls ‘Career Bureaucrats’ the Washington Swamp in Op-Ed

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy Alex Brandon / AP

The House majority leader on Wednesday put a face on the Washington, D.C., swamp the Trump administration has vowed to drain: the career federal workforce.

“Washington’s many agencies, bureaus and departments propagate rules that weigh down businesses, destroy jobs, and limit American freedoms,” wrote Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in a Jan. 25 op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal. “Career bureaucrats who never face the voters wield punishing authority with little to no accountability. If there’s a swamp in Washington, this is it.”

McCarthy also said that the “federal bureaucracy” is the entity that “poses the greatest threat to America’s people, economy and Constitution.” The majority leader’s op-ed went on to lambaste what he argued was a proliferation of agency regulations during the Obama administration that have burdened American companies, large and small. McCarthy outlined how the House, in tandem with the Trump administration, plans to overturn many of the Obama-era regulations – particularly those related to energy – in the short- and long-term.   

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“Faced with a metastasizing bureaucracy, the House is undertaking structural and specific reform to offer the nation a shot at reviving the economy, restoring the Constitution and improving government accountability, all at once,” McCarthy wrote.

But the implication that the career federal workforce is responsible for creating regulations during the Obama administration – or any political administration -- is misleading. Career federal employees do not create policy, or draft their own executive rules and regulations; that is the job of an administration’s political appointees. And those rules are almost always based on laws that Congress passes.

“The premise that career employees are responsible for the proliferation of regulations in the Obama administration is incorrect, because no regulations are developed without the approval of the political leadership,” said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, and a former Energy Department senior executive with decades of public service experience. “So all of these regulations originated from the choices that the Obama administration made in terms of policy. If the new administration wishes to change the direction of regulatory policy, the career civil service will do that,” Valdez said. “But that is not a choice that they [federal employees] make, it is a choice of the political leadership.”

The House majority leader’s office did not respond to questions related to the WSJ op-ed, including one asking whether McCarthy was blaming the career civil service for Obama-era regulations.

“Every rule-making comes from one of two sources -- either it’s congressionally-directed, or it’s directed from the White House,” said Valdez. “That’s just the way the system works.”

Federal employee unions and advocates also took exception to McCarthy’s characterization of the federal workforce. National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said McCarthy’s “effort to portray hard-working civil servants as unaccountable bureaucrats worthy of being ‘drained from the swamp’ is a tired and cynical attempt to divert attention from who is most likely to benefit from the regulation rollbacks he is planning.” 

American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. said that McCarthy's op-ed "shows how truly disconnected he is from America’s working class. To call civil servants – one-third of whom are veterans – a 'threat to America’s people, economy and Constitution' is an insult to the men and women who dedicate their lives to the programs and services that benefit all Americans."

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association also took issue with McCarthy's comments in the piece about career employees. NARFE Legislative Director Jessica Klement, who pointed out that roughly 150,000 federal workers live and work in California, home to McCarthy's district, said "blaming career civil servants deflects responsibility from those -- including members of Congress – with the actual power to change federal laws and regulations. If there is a 'swamp,' they [federal employees] are not it; rather, it would be the politicians who make the decisions, but disclaim responsibility for them."

McCarthy wrote that House next week “will begin repealing specific regulations using the Congressional Review Act, which allows a majority in the House and Senate to overturn any rules finalized in the past 60 legislative days.” The chamber also has passed two bills this congressional session that would implement regulatory reform: The REINS Act (Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny), and the Regulatory Accountability Act.

Jeff Neal, a former senior executive who has worked at the Defense Logistics Agency and the Homeland Security Department, had the same assessment as Valdez. “People like to talk about unelected bureaucrats, but it doesn’t really line up with the way things generally happen in Washington,” said Neal, now a senior vice president at ICF and author of the blog ChiefHRO. “What happens is, an administration says, ‘these are our priorities,’ and they push things in the direction that they want to go, and when they do, the career employees carry that out.”

Click here for “A Guide to the Rulemaking Process,” prepared by the Federal Register, which publishes every rule from the executive branch. “Agencies get their authority to issue regulations from laws (statutes) enacted by Congress,” the guide stated. “In some cases, the president may delegate existing presidential authority to an agency.”

McCarthy’s op-ed echoed a portion of then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter, a blueprint of his first 100 days in office if elected president, and unveiled last fall. Implementing a federal hiring freeze was listed along with five other measures designed to “clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, D.C.” On Monday, Trump issued a federal hiring freeze.

On Tuesday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Trump’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget why the administration was “pitching the false view that federal workers are corrupt or beholden to special interests.” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., the OMB nominee, said he wasn’t familiar with the statement and was not comfortable commenting on it, but later added, “I don’t think there is an assumption that is hard-wired into any system that federal workers are corrupt.”

Approximately 85 percent of the federal workforce works outside of Washington, D.C. “It’s easy to blame bureaucrats, because people hear the word ‘bureaucrat,’ and they think, ‘oh, these are terrible people,’ ” Neal said. Government workers, Cox pointed out, "deliver taxpayers’ Social Security checks, inspect the food we eat and the water we drink. They support our military, and ensure the safety of our skies, borders and seas."

Neal, whose expertise is in federal human resources management, said that comments about the federal workforce, like those in McCarthy’s op-ed, hurt federal recruitment and retention of talented employees, as well as the overall morale of the government workforce. “That type of rhetoric is troubling, because it does have negative effects on people who are good people, who go to work intending to do a good job,” Neal said. 

Mulvaney said during his Tuesday morning confirmation hearing that he wants a “high-morale, high-performance” federal workforce, and that he plans to look for ways to better reward top employees and hold poor performers accountable. The new governmentwide hiring freeze tasks the OMB director and the director of the Office of Personnel Management with devising a long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal government through attrition. It’s unclear what size Mulvaney, or Trump, wants the government to be, but the OMB nominee said on Tuesday that more people don’t automatically create efficiency.

The federal government is big because America is big, said Neal. The point though is not so much the exact size of the government, he noted, but its ability to recruit and retain talented employees. “You want a government full of high-performing people,” he said. 

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