White House Photo

Viewpoint: The Mismanagement Was Bad Enough. Now They Want to Tear the System Down

President Trump has launched an assault on the very foundations of American administrative government.

By any reasonable estimation, the federal government is more poorly run right now than at any point in recent memory. And that, unfortunately, is not the worst of it.

There are a host of vacancies in key positions, with many acting leaders named under dubious pretenses. The president himself makes unprecedented dangerous accusations that a “deep state” is out to undermine him. He subverts both legislative and administrative processes by governing through executive order. His administration has yet to develop and implement a coherent pandemic response plan. His appointees and aides routinely evince scorn for the rule of law and refuse to cooperate with legitimate oversight.

That’s hardly a complete list of ills. But it’s more than enough to have led more than 120 experts in public administration and government management to openly decry “the intentional degradation and weaponization by many Trump administration appointees of bad public management as a purposeful strategy to influence and shape public policy.” 

The Trump administration was supposed to be an experiment in having an outsider run government like a business. In a sense that has turned out to be true, if the business you’re talking about routinely engages in shady practices, such as claiming that the chief executive had personally signed off on a nonexistent contract to build a section of border wall and that Navy procurement officials had picked a shipyard in Wisconsin to build a new frigate because the state was politically advantageous to the president. 

Americans should not have to settle for such routine mismanagement and contempt for laws, rules and norms. But the administration has demanded they do so. And now the president is asking them to accept something even worse: an assault on our system of administrative government. 

The professional civil service is more than 130 years old, and has served as a model for the rest of the world. This week, with the stroke of a pen, Trump moved to undermine its very foundation. He signed a directive creating a new class of federal employees in policy-related roles who could be hired and fired at will. The order politicizes a potentially huge swath of the federal workforce. Agencies were immediately ordered to identify workers to shift into the new employment category before the end of Trump’s first term in January.  

The Trump administration’s politically appointed leaders already have shattered records for government breakdowns, according to new research conducted by Paul C. Light of New York University. Trump has also added more layers to the top of the bureaucracy than any recent president. 

Now he wants the ability to fire thousands of experienced and talented career government professionals and replace them with loyalists. 

Good government groups, usually measured in their responses to administration initiatives, greeted this one with flabbergasted indignation.

“Being able to place any number of existing career positions into this new [employment category] not only blurs the line between politics and the neutral competency of the career civil service, it obliterates it,” said Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service. Bob Corsi, interim president of the Senior Executives Association, said “With this order, there is no longer an independent civil service. This is how the party-run governments of authoritarian-led countries are organized and staffed.”

It would be nice if we could be certain that authoritarianism isn't exactly what the president has in mind.