It has long been conservative orthodoxy that the Federal Government will not implement right of center policies without strong cabinet government, that is with political appointees at the top and placed throughout multiple levels of bureaucracy to manage a resistant career civil service.
As Ronald Reagan’s first Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management implementing this dogma, as author of a recently re-released book on the subject, and several authorships of Heritage Foundation studies, yours truly pleads guilty as an accomplice to this orthodoxy.
As with many other matters, however, President Donald Trump unsettles all dogmas. For he has not only had fewer political appointees confirmed at this stage of operations — one can blame the Senate for that — but he has also nominated fewer candidates than any modern president.
President Trump has even boasted that not appointing second tier political executives who do not require Senate confirmation was a way to save taxpayer money, even though the minuscule cost is a mere rounding error in federal budgets.
One would think an Administration reportedly concerned about a “deep state” bureaucracy undermining his presidency and his clear desire to drain the Washington swamp would instead make appointing political supporters to watch over its career representatives a top priority.
On the contrary, a political chief of staff was removed and replaced by a long-serving career military officer who had previously headed the Department of Homeland Security. Two further top positions at the Department of Defense and White House National Security Affairs are also held by former career military officers. Other cabinet secretaries and numerous assistant secretaries and below have career domestic government bureaucracy backgrounds rather than the political management teamwork required under cabinet government orthodoxy.
The orthodoxy is silent on military careerists although COS John Kelly’s courageous public rebuke of Rep. Frederica S. Wilson for desecrating the process honoring fallen military soldiers makes him immune from any general conservative theories:
It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation [between President Trump and the deceased soldier’s wife, and then make it public]. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought — the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.
And the orthodox theory must likewise face the fact that with an administration dominated by career-background executives the Trump Administration has done more to reform the bureaucratic regulatory process than any president. He has withdrawn 469 regulations at this early stage of his term compared to half that for second best regulation-cutter Ronald Reagan at 200 for the same point in his administration (although the measures are a bit different).
Very importantly, Trump has revived the moribund Congressional Review Act, which was only used once since created in 1996, actually rousing Congress to override 14 major job-killing economic rules issued under President Obama toward the end of his administration, all under overtly fierce and partisan media opposition.
Trump’s most recent act was a wholesale regulatory reform of Obamacare after Congress failed to act legislatively, mostly following recommendations by the Conservative Action Project. He even audaciously ended the symbolically important subsidies to large health insurance companies. These had been declared unconstitutional by a lower court in a case brought by the House of Representatives arguing they lacked a congressional appropriation but had remained in effect pending appeal to higher courts. Naturally 90 percent of media coverage ignored the constitutional question and claimed the poorest Americans receiving direct subsidies would suffer, which they would not since higher premiums would result in larger subsidies.
A few days earlier the Environmental Protection Agency scrapped the Obama Clean Power Plan that had exaggerated the negative effects of U.S. coal production by manipulating the law to count among negative externalities the environment effects on the whole world. Naturally, correctly restricting so-called “neighborhood effects” to the U.S. neighborhood was condemned by the climate-obsessed National Academy of Science and echoed by the media, claiming that not including the rest of the world “could affect the United States through such pathways as global migration, economic destabilization and political destabilization.” Of course, no one mentioned the “pathways” qualification or the “could” on TV.
The Energy Department meanwhile withdrew proposed rigid regulations micromanaging gas-fired indoor or outdoor fireplaces, natural gas compressors, and computers. The Labor Department axed a proposal to stiffen overly-restrictive exposure standards for styrene. Not to be outdone, the Department of Education revised overly-detailed Federal accountability standards for student performance under the Every Student Succeeds Act opposed by local districts, and then followed with more balanced standards for college sexual harassment charges.
The Department of Justice boldly reviewed the actual wording of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and not finding a transgendered category under its antidiscrimination protections, commonsensically ruled transgenders were not protected by it. The Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list 25 animal population species as endangered since they were in fact not endangered. And these are just a few of the hundreds of additional actions taken by government agencies with hundreds more under review. It is an impressive record.
On the other hand, score-settling leaks from the career intelligence bureaucracy erupt daily undermining its credibility and diverting presidential attention from serious matters. At Justice, acting Attorney General Sally Yates had to be fired for “refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States” on immigration and refugee matters, while career leadership at Customs and Border Control clumsily interpreted and enforced the immigration entry order resulting in possible breaches of security supported by judges second-guessing such executive matters.
EPA leadership did recognize the necessity of appointing a political appointee to oversee career staff approving sensitive contract grants to assure they were following agency policy but appointed a staff employee as reviewer rather than a non-career senior executive in a direct supervisory relationship. The Interior Department secretary complained that one-third of his career staff was undermining leadership policy but apparently did not request additional political appointees to supervise them. A careerist was appointed acting HHS secretary when the earlier political one resigned when qualified political executives were available.
Even Trump’s move to cut the health insurance companies’ subsidy was less than it appeared since the careerist-oriented Office of Management and Budget and agency regulation-writers did their best to moderate the effect of the changes. Insurers would still have to subsidize those in the individual health insurance market who earn too much to qualify for a direct subsidy — those earning $48,000 a year for a single person and $98,000 a year for a family of four — and insurance companies could then recoup those subsidies by charging higher premiums to the unsubsidized.
Still, it is impossible to ignore that the Trump Administration’s record in advancing conservative regulatory goals has been exemplary while mostly ignoring the cabinet/political type of administration insisted upon by conservative intellectuals.
While reluctant to dismiss this public administration orthodoxy outright, one must admit that this president forces one to rethink all such verities.
Donald Devine, senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, and the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, was director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during Ronald Reagan’s first term.