Drastically Changing Agency Missions Is Harder Than Trump Might Think

Past efforts to eliminate or upend federal agencies achieved little success.

In 1981, Milt Goldberg was a relatively new career federal employee, helping the Education Department out of its infancy and into a fully functioning agency.

Those efforts were threatened, however, as newly sworn-in President Ronald Reagan had made clear throughout his campaign he planned to eliminate the department – created just over a year earlier -- entirely. When Reagan appointed Terrel Bell as his Education secretary, it was assumed Bell would go along with that plan.

Things took a different turn. Bell identified Goldberg, a former principal and administrator in the Philadelphia public school system, as qualified to serve as acting director of what was then known as the National Institute of Education. Bell and Goldberg came up with the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a panel that recruited top educators nationwide to investigate the problems in America’s public schools and the best ways to fix them.

The formation of the commission initially went against the wishes of the White House, says Goldberg, who was named the panel’s executive director, but he and other leaders “stayed out of the administration’s sight.” He adds that Bell may have been attempting to postpone Reagan’s efforts to eliminate the Education Department, but that was never the overtly stated purpose.

No matter the intention, it had that effect; despite its initial reservations, the White House ended up embracing the commission, and when the panel issued the landmark report “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, Reagan shopped it as a key piece of evidence to support his desired reforms.  While the report did not touch on key Reagan policies such as school prayer and vouchers, he used it to push those agendas. In so doing, it became clear the administration could no longer advocate the elimination of a department it relied upon to advance its policies.

“Wrapping up the department was no longer an issue because there were folks inside the White House who were very close to Reagan who said you can’t get rid of the department after an independent commission formed by your own education secretary” identified the problems you want to fix, explains Goldberg, who stayed at the department as a career employee until the mid-1990s. “So they dropped it.”

Jack Jennings, who served as the Democratic counsel for education on the House Education and Labor Committee and staff director for the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary and Vocational Education throughout the Reagan administration, credits Bell with saving the department.

“Bell’s ruse worked,” Jennings says. “He gave the White House and Reagan something to hold onto, so they left the department alone.” He adds, Bell, “in effect, undercut Reagan.”

Goldberg’s experience working as a career civil servant under an administration set on undermining the mission of his agency has newfound relevancy, with President-elect Trump promising to upend operations throughout government. He has nominated a slew of candidates with experience that appears to conflict with what their agencies’ missions.  

Trump’s own Education secretary-designate Betsy DeVos, for example, declined in her confirmation hearing to rule out stripping all federal funding from public schools. At the Energy Department -- another target Reagan failed to eliminate -- secretary-designate Rick Perry has argued the organization should not exist (though at his confirmation hearing, Perry said he regrets those comments and no longer believes them). Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to the lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has sued his future employer more than a dozen times for what he calls overreaching regulations.

For John O’Grady, who has worked at EPA since the Reagan administration and is now president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ EPA Council, Pruitt’s philosophies call back the leadership of the agency under Ann Gorsuch, administrator in Reagan’s first two years. Reagan’s EPA team “did a lot of damage,” O’Grady says, especially to morale. Efforts to outsource EPA’s responsibilities to state agencies -- a strategy he says would fail today due to staffing and budget shortfalls at the state level -- and cut back on its agenda led to a “brain drain” among the agency’s workforce.

“I hope we’re not looking at a repeat of that,” O’Grady says, adding he has already had conversations with employees who now plan to retire the moment they are eligible instead of staying on “due to commitment to the mission.”

While Trump’s soon-to-be Cabinet may not intentionally undermine him in the way some say Bell did during Reagan’s first term, several members have already broken in significant ways from the president-elect. On issues such as climate change, Russian hacking, torture, building a wall and trade, Trump’s appointees have publicly contradicted him. And in addition to agency leadership that may not be on board with his entire agenda, political realities could also keep the bureaucratic status quo alive and well.

“One lesson I did learn was it’s far easier to be a critic than to be someone constructing policy,” Jennings recalls of his and other Democrats’ efforts to push back on Reagan’s efforts to undermine federal agencies. “It is far easier to poke holes in people’s arguments.”

Also standing in Trump’s way could be about 2 million career federal employees not eager to reverse the work they have accomplished in their careers. The Heritage Foundation wrote in 1982 of Reagan’s efforts to shutter Energy and fold its essential responsibilities into Commerce that vacancies allowed “career bureaucrats unsympathetic with the president's policies to continue to exert influence.”

While Trump hopes to have most of his Cabinet in place shortly, he has yet to announce almost any nominees to undersecretary or component director roles. He has nominated 31 individuals out of the approximately 1,100 that require Senate confirmation. Of those he has nominated, 27 still awaited Senate confirmation as of publication time.  

Still, many federal employees remain apprehensive about their future bosses. In a recent Government Business Council/GovExec.com survey of the federal workforce, just one-third of respondents expressed confidence Trump’s nominees to lead their agencies would lead effectively. One in four said they would not be able to carry out their agency’s missions under the incoming administration.

Jennings and Goldberg note Reagan’s efforts to close down Energy and Education fell short when the departments had existed for just a few years. Any similar campaign in 2017 would require pulling up decades-old roots that have now deeply embedded themselves into the bureaucratic establishment. Still, according to a recent report from The Hill, Trump’s team is looking to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities, privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and institute major budget cuts to the departments of Energy and Commerce.

Leaders at those agencies may want to follow the precedent of Reagan officials who found success in pushing forward agendas to weaken the stated purpose of their agencies. James Watt, who led the Interior Department during Reagan’s first two years in office, pushed to sell public lands and develop natural resources (Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., Trump’s pick to lead Interior, has said he wants to keep control of public lands but advocated drilling and mining on them). While Watt was more successful than other Reaganites in implementing an agenda hostile to what many considered to be the mission of the department he led, ultimately he was done in by public opinion and the controversial policies he enforced. Watt’s efforts were so contentious and widely debated, in fact, that he became the subject of a sketch on Saturday Night Live. He was eventually forced to resign after a series of offensive remarks.

For now, employees at agencies such as EPA are “apprehensive,” O’Grady says, but are trying to put uncertainty over what may come out of their minds and focus on doing their jobs.

“We serve the American people and continue to do so,” he says, adding, “I’m not expecting good things to happen.”