Trump vs. 130 years of civil service

Trump vs. 130 years of civil service
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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 John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally 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 YovanovitchGrand jury adds additional counts against Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and and Igor Fruman Strzok: Trump behaving like an authoritarian Powell backs Biden at convention as Democrats rip Trump on security 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 SondlandGOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' Top Democrat slams Trump's new EU envoy: Not 'a political donor's part-time job' Trump names new EU envoy, filling post left vacant by impeachment witness Sondland 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.”

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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.