President Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, shook official Washington with his pledge before the Conservative Political Action Conference to ensure the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He promised a battle: “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.” In fact, “Every day, it is going to be a fight.”
In response, I have only two words: “too late.” The administrative state, as the Progressives knew it, evaporated years ago.
The “administrative state” label actually comes from a doctoral dissertation published in 1948 by a promising young scholar, Dwight Waldo, who went on to become one of public administration’s superstars. Bureaucrats have power, he argued, because they do what we expect them to do: bring professionalism and expertise to tough jobs. In exercising that power, Waldo contended, bureaucrats need to be responsive to citizens and accountable to elected officials.
The twin ideals of competence and responsiveness have faded, because of neglect from the left and assault from the right. Liberals have developed a disconcerting habit of launching big ideas without paying much attention to how to make them work. Nothing captures this better than the failed launch of the Obamacare website in October 2013, when the administration took its eye off the ball in rolling out its signature program.
But conservatives have been complicit as well. Instead of repealing policies they disagreed with, they savaged the bureaucracies charged with administering them. Through hiring freezes, political attack, and ultimately “starving the beast,” they undermined the agencies with the responsibility for administering the law—and, in the process, weakened confidence in government itself.
Despite government’s many manifest successes—the air traffic control system is a miraculous hidden ballet, and the error rate in monthly Social Security payments is too low to count—it would be hard to argue that today’s bureaucracy is as competent or responsive or effective as we deserve. There are too many performance problems, and too often the bureaucracy is marching to the beat of its own drummer—or a thousand drummers playing different beats.
The administrative state, as Waldo imagined it, is dead. Liberals pay far too little attention to translating their ideas into action. Conservatives have captured the rhetorical high ground, arguing that “an employee is more likely to die than to be fired,” working in a “vast and bloated executive branch” that “intrudes into virtually every aspect of American life,” as David French argued in National Review.
Bannon is using that rhetoric to wage a proxy war, against bureaucrats instead of the policies they’re charged by law with administering. As a result, the nation is being deprived of the debate it really needs: what do we really want government to do, and how can it best be done?
Instead of debating clean-water laws, it’s easier to cut those in EPA charged with regulating them. Instead of sorting out the fundamentals of the tax code, where tax breaks now equal the entire discretionary part of the federal budget (including both defense and domestic programs), it’s easier to starve the IRS and its ability to implement it. Instead of wiping out the Affordable Care Act completely, it’s easier to pass the core responsibilities to the states and let them sort it out. The results won’t be pretty.
But the left needs to shoulder its own share of the blame. If there’s any lesson that liberals should have learned from the Obamacare battles—and its 2016 electoral losses—it’s that passing laws alone doesn’t get the job done. They’ve got no real theory of governance to replace the “administrative state” they allowed to molder.
With complicity from both the right and the left, American government has drifted into a world where it’s “debt-financed and proxy-administered,” as John J. DiIulio, Jr., pointed out in a post about “big government” on the Brookings Institution website. Waldo’s administrative state crumbled because we spent beyond our means, ran government through tools—contractors and grants—that the government doesn’t manage well, produced results that fell short of promises and, not surprisingly, left citizens distrustful of everyone in office.
For example, a new Government Accountability Office’s report has identified 34 areas at risk for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. Of the items on the list, 32 of 34 are managed through a complex network of proxies. These programs are big and complex. They’re hard to manage. We don’t do it well. And, worse, neither the right nor the left have a theory about how to do it better.
That’s the big challenge that ultimately faces Bannon’s campaign to deconstruct the administrative state. He can slash government’s bureaucrats and use the resulting poor performance to make the case for more cuts. But, at some point, he’ll have eliminated the capacity to do the things he—and we—want government to do. He can cut the bureaucracy with an ax, but he can’t produce the other big items on his list—national security and better trade relationships with the rest of the world—without a competent government. He won’t keep his boss in power long if he can’t deliver on the big promises Trump has made.
Most important, the administration can’t produce less government with fewer bureaucrats—just worse government, one that disappoints citizens even more and wastes far more tax dollars. Of course, the left isn’t in much better shape. They overpromised and underdelivered on too much of their agenda.
Progressivism, as it came to life after World War II in the administrative state, just doesn’t exist any more.
So the epic battle isn’t really over Bannon’s deconstruction of the administrative state. Sooner or later, the fight will be over how government can best deliver on politicians’ promises and citizens’ expectations. Neither the right nor the left has a good plan for moving past the what to the how. The future will belong to who gets there first.
Donald F. Kettl is a professor and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.