Trump vs. 130 years of civil service

Trump vs. 130 years of civil service
© Getty

When a parade of high level of government employees testified in the impeachment hearings before the House intelligence committee, they were largely characterized by President TrumpDonald TrumpSunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Navajo Nation president on Arizona's new voting restrictions: An 'assault' on our rights The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez MORE’s supporters as being a part of the “deep state.” The president’s son tweeted, “America hired [Trump] to fire people like the first three witnesses we’ve seen,” and described these witnesses (William Taylor, George Kent and Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchGiuliani hires attorneys who defended Harvey Weinstein The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Former Ukrainian prosecutor says he was fired for not investigating Hunter Biden: report MORE) as “career government bureaucrats and nothing more.”

Let’s put aside the fact that several of the witnesses were Trump political appointees rather than civil servants (including the witness with the most explosive testimony, Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandAmerica's practice of 'pay-to-play' ambassadors is no joke Graham's 'impeach Kamala' drumbeat will lead Republicans to a 2022 defeat GOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' MORE). There were indeed a number of witnesses against the president who were “career government bureaucrats.” And last week we heard that several others among this supposedly pernicious group resigned from the Office of Management and Budget, possibly because of the presidential order to withhold congressionally approved funds from Ukraine.

The government is a vast apparatus. While some may not wish that this was the case, many of these people still want Social Security checks to be delivered, a military to be staffed and properly trained, and national parks to be maintained, among a myriad of other tasks. All of these tasks require people to do them. For more than a century, these people have been civil servants or more derisively, “bureaucrats.”


What is the alternative to having a career staff perform these functions? Presumably those like Trump Jr. would have us go back to the spoils system pioneered by one of President Trump’s heroes, President Andrew Jackson. Under this system, a large number of government officials are rotated in office, with new people coming in with every new presidential administration.

By the late 19th century, the perils of the spoils system were becoming clear. The system leant itself to corruption, with positions given to people who weren’t qualified for their jobs — but who were loyal to the party in power. When a disappointed office seeker assassinated President James A. Garfield in 1881, it finally provided the political impetus to replace the spoils system with merit-based selection for government positions.

The civil service system has been reformed several times since the 1883 Pendleton Act. But the principle that many government jobs should be staffed by qualified professionals has rarely been questioned. These experts are of course not automatons merely carrying out governmental functions. They are human beings with preferences, and those preferences inevitably affect their attitudes. But particularly at the higher levels of government, officials understand that policies change with administrations, and that helping a new president carry out his policies is part of your job regardless of your personal feelings.

But there are limits to that ethos of being responsive to new presidents. I worked as a civil servant under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations at the Office of Management and Budget, and we were repeatedly told that our first responsibility was to the presidency, not the president. That meant that obeying the laws that created and empowered us and the agencies we worked with was our first priority. Serving the individual president was always secondary to obeying the law.

A concern with obeying the law is what motivated those civil servants who testified in the impeachment hearings. A concern with obeying the law is what likely motivated those OMB officials who resigned their jobs. A concern with obeying the law is what a democratic society should want its government officials to prioritize. 

The alternative to a concern with obeying the law is a concern with putting the president above the law because of personal loyalty to him. That hasn’t worked out well in our past and is not a characteristic of a healthy democracy.

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.