Trump’s war on civil servants could make us all casualties

Trump’s war on civil servants could make us all casualties
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In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE asked Congress to make it easier for him to fire federal government workers. But doing so would reverse more than 100 years of American policy and would make the American form of government seem much more like authoritarian regimes across the world.

While Congress is unlikely to act on President Trump’s request in the near future, there is reason to already be alarmed about his management of the executive branch. Trump came into office with one of his chief advisers declaring that one goal of the Trump administration was “deconstruction of the administrative state”.

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Many of Trump’s goals remain elusive. His regulatory rollback has actually been much slower than advertised, there is no wall, and ObamaCare is still in place. The deconstruction of the administrative state though is off to a more productive start. Trump and his cabinet secretaries have had a pronounced effect on the bureaucracy. Some of these accomplishments have been deliberate, others have occurred through mismanagement.

The State Department has experienced a large number of departures by diplomats and other personnel. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonBolton says Russia, China seeking to promote discord in Trump administration Bolton says Russia, China seeking to promote discord in Trump administration Trump's nastiest break-ups: A look at the president's most fiery feuds MORE has been more explicit than most in his attempts to decrease the size of the agency. The result has been numerous departures, but also an agency that is less prepared to push for United States interests (including those favored by Trump) around the world.

In other agencies, the impacts have been more subtle. Michael Lewis has written several detailed and thorough pieces on how unprepared Trump officials have weakened the Departments of Energy and Agriculture. At the Energy Department the unpreparedness has weakened our protections against nuclear accidents, and at USDA it has harmed scientific work in a wide variety of agricultural fields. And Trump’s more explicit and personal war with the Department of Justice and the FBI will doubtlessly have long term impacts on law enforcement.

When people leave the federal government because of poor or hostile political leadership, those who depart are not a random selection of employees. People with the most experience will take early retirement packages. Younger people with the most talent will be the ones who choose to leave for other careers because they get job offers from state governments, universities, or the private sector. In other words, the people who leave are the ones who are best qualified to run the agency today and in the future.

What does this mean for the agency left behind? It means the agency is less capable of fulfilling its mission. While some may applaud an EPA that cannot police the environment or a Department of Labor unable to protect workers, these trends will also lead to a Department of Veterans Affairs less able to serve veterans, and benefit agencies less able to send out Social Security checks and Medicare reimbursements on time. We all rely on government. We all suffer in some way when it works less well.

The criticism of government then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As mismanagement drives out the most talented public servants, government becomes less capable of doing even its most elementary jobs. Then criticism of the public sector increases further.

None of this is to say that agencies are without faults. Agency personnel can pursue their missions with overzealousness. Mistakes and even incompetence can occur even when agencies are managed by people who wish them to succeed (the rollout of healthcare.gov comes to mine). But a bureaucracy that is governed either through negligence, as much of it has been throughout this administration, or through intense politicization, as Trump seems to desire; harkens back to the government of the 19th Century. And it is no way to deal with the problems of the 21st Century.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.