Partisan squabbles degrade public servants — at America’s risk

Partisan squabbles degrade public servants — at America’s risk
© Greg Nash

President Donald Trump has been fulfilling his campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” keeping thousands of workers in the federal government at home without pay during the longest government shutdown in American history, while others have been working without pay.

This shutdown, unlike others, has taken place on the back of the administration’s concerted effort to minimize the influence and reduce personnel numbers of the administrative state. Beyond exemplifying the partisan dysfunction of Washington, the shutdown effectively has communicated that not all public servants are created equal.

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Take the case of the U.S. Department of State, a frontline agency in protecting foreign policy and national security interests. Its workers either have been furloughed or working without pay, while the Department of Defense (DOD) and intelligence agencies have remained largely untouched by the shutdown. This particular disparity sent a clear message that the State Department is less important than DOD or the CIA. In reality, these agencies perform complementary functions and must operate collaboratively to protect American interests.

Regardless of when the government re-opens, such disparity will have serious consequences — not only for the effectiveness of policy but also for the future of public service.  

People who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations through the decades have been held hostage by the Trump administration’s fight with Congress over a border wall, distracting leaders and voters from more practical solutions for border security. For public servants, leaving politics and partisanship at home is part of the job — and those who choose this path know so when they sign up for it. To have their financial livelihoods wrapped up in one of the most partisan political battles in recent American history is akin to a slap in the face.

Beyond partisanship, Trump’s public degradation of public servants kills morale among the career bureaucracy, as do his apparent dog whistles to white nationalists and his comments that many consider to be racist and misogynistic. Aspiring and current policymakers at all levels have had to confront an uncomfortable question: Will working for Trump mean that I am complicit in promoting values that are antithetical to my understanding of being American? It is not typically a question asked by public servants, who serve regardless of personal views, political affiliation, or preference. Trump has turned upside down the trope on public service to which so many in the U.S. government adhere when joining its ranks.  

The shutdown must be understood in the context of the administration’s commitment to reduce the influence and size of the administrative state. Other American presidents have attempted to do the same. Ronald Reagan campaigned on a “government is the problem” platform and implemented various downsizing measures. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached Impeachment can't wait Turley: Democrats offering passion over proof in Trump impeachment MORE’s reduction of government expenditures led to the smallest federal workforce in decades.

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All government downsizing is difficult and unpopular, but the Trump approach remains uniquely antagonistic, dismissive, and skeptical of the commitment to serve and contributions of public servants. As with his other moves, such as the government hiring freeze in 2017, the shutdown has been partially viewed as another side-handed swipe to minimize what he calls the “swamp.”

The manner in which the Trump administration treats public servants conveys that their contributions are a devalued public good. That dynamic will have long-term consequences for the government, potentially leading to the ranks of the U.S. government being systematically depleted over time and unable to retain strong talent or attract new talent.

Tricia Bacon, an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, told me that “students have been unable to start internships and jobs that will be important to their future. Students want go into public service to serve their country, and this prolonged shutdown signals that their commitment is not valued and respected the way it should be.”

At face value, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE’s “America First” agenda is ripe with opportunities to serve. From the economic revitalization of post-manufacturing regional economies in the United States to combating the opioid crisis, there are important challenges around which public servants might focus their commitment to serve. But, unfortunately, Trump has not taken advantage of any opportunity to do so. Instead, he seeks to dismantle that which could serve his very purposes by engaging the bureaucracy in a partisan manner.

Trump could learn something from President John F. Kennedy, who presented Americans with opportunities to serve the nation by establishing The Peace Corps. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Kennedy looked at the example of the Soviet Union, which “had hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors and nurses . . . prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism.” Kennedy understood what Trump does not: committed public servants advance U.S. interests.

However, presidential leadership alone won’t sustain strong public service in the United States. Stable employment, a clear mission-orientation, and the professional fulfillment of employees may be just as important in driving Americans to serve.  

During my 12 years of service as a former staffer in the State Department and White House, I witnessed colleagues working tirelessly — in war zones, situation rooms, tiny cubicles, border posts, embassy compounds, and all of the places in between and around the world where American interests have a home. The commitment came with sacrifices in relationships, health, of higher paying jobs, and time with loved ones.

The sacrifice was worth it because collectively we worked towards a larger goal. The Trump administration has made it impossible to see what that larger goal is.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a senior South Asia fellow at New America and senior adviser at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. A foreign policy expert specializing in U.S. counterterrorism and national security issues, she served as a civil servant in the Department of State and at the White House National Security Council during the Obama and Bush administrations. Follow her on Twitter @ShamilaCh.