The War on Federal Employees

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington

Not long ago, in a speech before a crowd of industry executives, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke declared 30 percent of his department’s employees to be disloyal. Given the size of the sprawling department, Zinke was referring to tens of thousands of federal civil servants who were not, in Zinke’s words, “loyal to the flag.” He followed that allegation with assurances that he’d put a plan in place to force the rogues out. 

We may be quick to chalk up the secretary’s entirely unsubstantiated claim to the unusual, perhaps unprecedented, “politics as usual” that marks the Trump era. In this uncharted and unsettling political reality, ordinary disagreements (such as those that regularly occur between career bureaucrats and presidential appointees) are transformed into dark and distorted morality plays. 

Indeed, Zinke’s claims are hardly isolated. Consider President Trump’s most recent broadside questioning the honesty and integrity of the Justice Department. Consider, too, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s more subtle but no less impactful intimations that he distrusts America’s diplomatic corps.

But Trump and company are hardly blazing new trails. This new normal began decades ago.     

At the dawn of our republic, Americans had an overriding fear of military dictatorship. In time, however, that fear of the military subsided and, in fact, historic unease morphed into contemporary veneration—so much so that the president’s press secretary recently scolded a reporter, insisting it was “highly inappropriate” to doubt the words of a “four-star Marine general.”

Recent generations of Americans have found a new target as bureaucrats, not bayonets, emerged as the supposed greatest threat to liberty. 

This switcheroo—recall Ronald Reagan’s semi-serious quip that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”—has been a deeply consequential one. 

Reagan’s now legendary polemics against the federal bureaucracy were validated—and stripped of their partisan bluster—by Bill Clinton. Clinton, a lifelong Democrat, promised to end big government as we know it; he succeeded in shrinking the size of the federal workforce, deregulating key industries, and privatizing scores of government services. 

For Clinton, bureaucracy wasn’t evil. It was, however, still worthy of disdain for the sole and sufficient reason of being, as his administration saw it, congenitally inefficient.   

Disregard, if not outright contempt, for the bureaucracy continued into the 21st century. Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the outsourcing of federal policymaking responsibilities intensified, and new campaigns commenced to strip bureaucrats of their legal protections.

During the Bush presidency, Congress passed legislation converting hundreds of thousands of federal civil servants into at-will employees. For its part, the Obama administration advanced a rule allowing the president to designate many more civil servants—operating in national security as well as domestic regulatory domains—as at-will employees. 

Those actions drew little notice but mattered a great deal, for the legal protections that were thereby stripped away are substantial, and were put in place for good reason. For the better part of a century, the vast majority of federal employees have been classified as civil servants and insulated against, among other things, politicized hiring and firing decisions. These civil service laws have promoted bureaucratic independence and empowered rank-and-file government workers to give expert advice unadulterated by the politics of the moment. In short, these laws have long ensured that government workers are stewards of the state, not servants of any particular presidential administration.

Well before Trump’s erstwhile strategist Steve Bannon promised to “deconstruct the administrative state,” that effectively bipartisan project, though more gently packaged, was well underway.

What’s different today is the vehemence of the attacks on the federal workforce. In years past, bureaucrats were called lazy, and the reforms proposed were pitched in technocratic terms as more responsive, “smarter government.” 

Now these same bureaucrats are called disloyal, even traitorous, and with the escalation of rhetoric has come a slash-and-burn approach to regulatory policymaking. We see this in Trump’s own words, as he repeatedly vows to drain the bureaucratic swamp; from Trump’s political appointees who silence career officials, disband expert working groups, and suppress scientific studies; and from any number of White House surrogates who accuse career government workers of taking part in ill-defined “Deep State” conspiracies to subvert American democracy.  

The deep state claims and the rhetoric of disloyalty serve two of Trump’s aims. First, they inflame the domestic culture wars, the entirely domestic (and largely manufactured) struggle between Trump’ supporters and the other—Americans viewed as elite, liberal, minority, or immigrant—the list goes on. The subversion that’s being alleged is some combination of an economic, cultural, or demographic affront to real Americans. Second, these labels are marshaled to cast doubt on the motivations and veracity of Trump’s critics.

The very vagueness of these allegations of disloyalty, moreover, allows Trump diehards to assume that the deep staters are in the pocket of whatever organization or community they most fear or despise. 

During the eventful first year of the Trump presidency, we have witnessed countless bureaucrats across scores of federal agencies—including the vaunted State Department—reassigned, stifled, demoralized, and, in essence, shown the door.    

Banishing the bureaucracy means surrendering the talent needed to run our myriad programs. Banishing them means jettisoning those willing and legally empowered to speak truth to power, questioning and resisting the corruption and deregulatory excesses of presidentially appointed agency heads—many of whom are quite clear in their hostility to congressionally mandated regulatory and welfare programs.

Recently, this bureaucracy has defied all odds and published a report, seemingly in tension with the views of the White House, declaring that climate change is real and attributable to human behavior. This bureaucracy also issued a dissent, decrying the administration’s refusal to disavow foreign governments that press children into military service. But these small wins—on matters that ought to transcend partisanship—are few and far between. 

Questioning, doubting, investigating, and at times resisting does not signify disloyalty or even disrespect. To the contrary, these are cherished tools of the trade, necessary to enrich government decision-making and to give shape and effect to our constitutional system of checks and balances. The only thing un-American is to suggest otherwise.  

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