EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at a news conference in Philadelphia in February.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at a news conference in Philadelphia in February. Matt Rourke/AP

How Agency Heads Are Shifting Power Away From Federal Employees and Toward States

Federal officials have had too much discretion to institute their personal policy preferences, administration officials say.

Trump administration officials on Wednesday told conservatives they've been successful in shifting power away from individual federal employees in favor of state and local governments, suggesting that federal workers had accumulated too much power in setting policy. 

Previous administrations have given federal employees too much discretion to make decisions based on their personal preferences, agency leaders told an audience at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank, during a panel discussion in Washington. The officials said they have spent the last two years finding ways to rein in their workforces,  and are continuing to look for ways to further constrain federal employees. Much of that work has focused on slashing regulations, revising and clarifying rules, and restricting the actions of enforcement personnel. 

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said department employees must base their work on the rule of law alone. 

“We cannot act arbitrarily based on policy preferences we might have,” Bernhardt said. “That is frankly something the government has struggled with over time.” 

Andrew Wheeler, administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, recalled a story from his days as a private sector attorney in which a farmer hired him to clarify confusion over whether a ditch on the farmer’s land was subject to federal water rules. An Army Corps of Engineers inspector told the farmer he got to decide whether or not it was federal water, even though the farmer insisted the decision violated EPA standards. 

“I want to take that individual discretion and have it with the owner of the property,” Wheeler said. 

Russ Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the Trump administration’s focus on slashing non-defense discretionary funding for federal agencies stemmed not just from budgetary priorities but also from the goal of reducing agencies’ power. Domestic agencies funded through that part of the budget are “getting in the way of the American people,” he said. 

“We’re trying to get government smaller, leaner and more efficient,” Vought said. “It will save money, but it will also give people more freedom.” 

Bernhard explained the recent decision to move about 250 Bureau of Land Management employees out of Washington  to western states also stemmed from a desire to shift power away from the federal government and toward states and the American people. He envisioned a “series of centers of excellence” throughout the western states that would make BLM more responsive to the stakeholders involved in the land it manages. Bernhardt said “99.9% of the employees who work at Interior are fantastic folks,” but it took political appointees with experience at the state level and a strong grasp of the “true competencies of states” to foster stronger collaboration with partners at that level. 

“Change is always difficult” at any large organization, the secretary said, adding that while it is important to listen to input throughout the department “ultimately we need to make decisions that move [us] forward.” 

The officials were confident their cultural changes would outlive the Trump administration. Wheeler, for example, noted that all Senior Executive Service employees at EPA have gone through mandatory “lean management” training that focuses on continuing improvement. Bernhardt said the shift to empowering states has permeated his entire department because of President Trump’s leadership. 

“It starts with him, and it goes down to me, and goes all the way down to our most local field managers,” Bernhardt said.

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