Saturday, May 26, 2018

Trump’s War on the Federal Workforce

The data on government workers suggest that lower skilled positions are better compensated in government service than in the private economy.  On the other hand, positions requiring considerable skill, training, or educational attainment are less well paid than similar positions in private industry.  Pay and benefits for public employees are closely associated with policies first implemented in the economically healthier postwar years.  Unions were more common then and they played a role in establishing floors on wages.  Those more egalitarian times also worked to keep wages at the top end of the spectrum at modest levels, a practice long forgotten in the private sector.  Private companies have many mechanisms by which they can diminish wage and benefit levels for their non-union employees.  Governments, however, can’t declare bankruptcy or go out of business and reconstitute themselves, consequently they are much more constrained by past practices.  Conservative politicians have been much less successful in destroying the union movement in the public sector than in the private, further providing stability in compensation for public employees.  It seems that as voters, government workers are able to exert leverage on employment policies at least at state and local levels.

The manner in which this situation, and government workers in general, are viewed seems to be determined mostly by political viewpoint.  Liberals will be proud of decent benefits for all workers and respect the financial sacrifices made by modestly paid experts who keep the government—and society—running.  Conservatives, who resent anyone they cannot control, will view these same workers as being coddled by excessive benefits and wages, and view the government’s experts as lazy incompetents who would be unable to find a real job in the private sector.  Given this divergence of perspectives, one might expect that federal employees would experience changes in the work environment when a new administration takes control in Washington.

Evan Osnos has provided a startling look at what the Trump administration has been up to since taking control.  His article appeared in The New Yorker under the title Trump vs. The “Deep State.”  He opens with this lede.

“How the Administration’s loyalists are quietly reshaping American governance.”

Osnos provides this perspective.

“Every new President disturbs the disposition of power in Washington. Stars fade. Political appointees arrive, assuming control of a bureaucracy that encompasses 2.8 million civilian employees, across two hundred and fifty agencies—from Forest Service smoke jumpers in Alaska to C.I.A. code-breakers in Virginia. “It’s like taking over two hundred and fifty private corporations at one time,” David Lewis, the chair of the political-science department at Vanderbilt University, told me.”

Since administrations change every four or eight years it is necessary that the vast majority of these government employees be protected from major upheavals when a new president arrives in town.  These workers are mostly performing the tasks already approved by Congress and are not involved in ongoing political debates taking place on the margins about what tasks should be eliminated or which new ones are needed.  Continuity is required for stability.  However, the leaders of these agencies are often political appointees who may have little relevant expertise yet can exercise considerable influence over technical and personnel policies.  The number of political appointees has been growing over time.  This has the dual effect of providing a president with the potential for more power in implementing an agenda, but it also makes it more difficult to assemble a team with unassailable competence—a fact Trump has already learned.

“Trump’s struggle to attract competent people reflects a broader problem. For decades, Presidents and Congress have created a steadily increasing number of political appointees. Kennedy submitted two hundred and eighty-six appointments for Senate approval; Trump is allotted more than twelve hundred. Stier [of Partnership for Public Service] said, ‘The system we have now is crazy. It’s unique among democracies. There is an entourage of these special assistants, special counsels, confidential assistants, and others. To insure that the President’s policy is carried out, the number of appointees could be in the dozens or the hundreds.’ He added, ‘We have a resurgent spoils system. It is the breaking of an organization that was already under stress. It is unmanageable and dangerous in a world when crises are happening in the blink of an eye’.”

Trump is in a poor position to personally evaluate people for positions because he has so little experience in governing and no particular philosophy of governance.  His major criterion for a candidate is that he/she be absolutely loyal to him personally.

“….Trump has elevated loyalty to the primary consideration. Since he has no fixed ideology, the White House cannot screen for ideas, so it seeks a more personal form of devotion. Kellyanne Conway, one of his most dedicated attendants, refers reverently to the “October 8th coalition,” the campaign stalwarts who remained at Trump’s side while the world listened to a recording of him boasting about grabbing women by the genitals.”

However, loyalty as a substitute for competence can be extremely dangerous.

“A culture of fealty compounds itself; conformists thrive, and dissenters depart or refuse to join. By May, the President was surrounded by advisers in name only, who competed to be the most explicitly quiescent. Peter Navarro, the head of the White House National Trade Council, told an interviewer, ‘My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters’.”

The first place where competence is required is in the vetting of potential appointees where Trump and his crew of loyalists have shown little of it. With about 4,000 total jobs to fill, some of the administration’s efforts have been cringe-worthy.

“The White House brought in an array of outsiders, who, at times, ran into trouble. As an assistant to the Secretary of Energy, the Administration installed Sid Bowdidge, whose recent employment had included managing a Meineke Car Care branch in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Bowdidge departed after it emerged that he had called Muslims ‘maggots.’ In December, Matthew Spencer Petersen, a nominee to the federal bench, became a brief online sensation when Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked him a series of basic law-school questions, which revealed that Petersen had never argued a motion, tried a case, or taken a deposition by himself. Embarrassing details came out about other judicial nominees: Brett Talley, who had never tried a case in federal court, wandered cemeteries hunting for ghosts; Jeff Mateer had called transgender children part of ‘Satan’s plan.’ All three nominations were withdrawn.”

Having put little thought into governance, Trump is at the mercy of others for filling most positions.  He has little choice but to follow the guidance of Republican Party leaders and the herd of special interest groups in alliance with them.  Trump’s major contribution seems to be in excluding anyone who didn’t support his election.

“Republican think tanks and donors succeeded in installing preferred nominees. The earliest wave arrived from the Heritage Foundation; subsequent ones came from Charles and David Koch’s network of conservative advocacy groups and from the American Enterprise Institute. But the White House maintained a virtual blockade against Republicans who had signed letters opposing Trump’s candidacy.”

Rogue presidents have always believed that the federal workforce should serve their political needs.  Those who would not adhere to that principle were expendable. 

“Richard Nixon’s aides produced an eighty-page manual on the removal of ‘undesirable’ careerists, which proffered a system for grading civil servants on political ‘dependability,’ ranging from ‘L’ (for ‘Let’s watch this fellow’) to ‘O’ (for ‘Out’). To marginalize the troublesome ones, it suggested a ‘New Activity Technique’: create an ‘apparently meaningful, but essentially meaningless, new activity to which they are all transferred.’ Such an activity, Nixon’s aides wrote, could serve as ‘a single barrel into which you can dump a large number of widely located bad apples’.”

Trump’s administration has resurrected this policy.  Osnos provides an example from the State Department under Tillerson.

“….in a kind of revival of Nixon’s New Assignment Technique, hundreds of State Department employees have been banished to a bizarre form of bureaucratic purgatory. Last October, Tillerson’s office announced the launch of a ‘FOIA Surge,’ a campaign to process a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, which would require three hundred and fifty State Department staffers. The work was rudimentary (‘You could do it with smart interns,’ one participant said), but the list of those assigned to it included prominent Ambassadors and specialized civil servants. They quickly discovered something in common: many had worked on issues of priority to the Obama Administration.” 

Post-Watergate when many of Nixon’s methods were revealed, Congress passed a law aimed at prohibiting discrimination against federal employees based on “political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition.”  The State Department action should have generated protests against these types of activities.  How did the Trump administration deal with this?

“Civil servants who think that they have been mistreated can appeal to a semi-judicial agency called the Merit Systems Protection Board. By law, though, the board needs two members to function, and one left just before Trump’s Inauguration, so for sixteen months it has issued no judgments. For a while, the staff continued to work—reading complaints, marking them with notes—assuming that a new hire would arrive soon. (Since 1979, the board had never been without a quorum for longer than a few weeks.) But, as complaints kept coming in, the staff was forced to store them, unresolved, in vacant rooms of the office, which occupies part of a commercial building in downtown Washington.”

Between attacks on the integrity of parts of the government, and threats to cut financial support, the moral of the workforce has plummeted, and numerous people are either being forced out or choosing to resign.  Consider the State Department as an example.

“….Tillerson dismantled large parts of the department: as the White House proposed a thirty-one-per-cent budget reduction, the department accepted the lowest number of new Foreign Service officers in years. Sixty per cent of the highest-ranked diplomats have departed.”

Applying data like that to multiple government agencies whose leaders are determined to reward the faithful and punish any malcontents indicates a veritable exodus is occurring.

“Amid a strong economy, large numbers of employees are opting to leave the government rather than serve it. In Trump’s first nine months, more than seventy-nine thousand full-time workers quit or retired—a forty-two-per-cent increase over that period in Obama’s Presidency. To Trump and his allies, the departures have been liberating, a purge of obstructionists. ‘The President now has people around him who aren’t trying to subvert him,’ Michael Caputo, a senior campaign adviser, told me. ‘The more real Trump supporters who pop up in the White House phone book, the better off our nation will be’.”

Trusting his ample gut, Trump has surrounded himself with an astounding cast of characters, nearly all of which have demonstrated blatant acts of either incompetence, or ethical malfeasance, or both.  Particularly troubling is the fact that Trump’s disregard for the truth has crept into our governance.

“In one agency after another, I encountered a pattern: on controversial issues, the Administration is often not writing down potentially damaging information. After members of Congress requested details on Carson’s decorating expenses, Marcus Smallwood, the departmental-records officer at HUD, wrote an open letter to Carson, saying, ‘I do not have confidence that HUD can truthfully provide the evidence being requested by the House Oversight Committee because there has been a concerted effort to stop email traffic regarding these matters.’ At the Department of the Interior, the Inspector General’s office investigated Zinke’s travel expenses but was stymied by ‘absent or incomplete documentation’ that would ‘distinguish between personal, political, and official travel.’ According to Ruch, of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, when environmentalists filed suit to discover if industry lobbyists had influenced a report on Superfund sites, they were told, ‘There are no minutes, no work product, no materials.’ Ruch added, ‘The task-force report was a product of immaculate conception.’ He believes that the Administration is ‘deliberately avoiding creating records’.”

Osnos skewers a number of Trump’s loyalist appointees, but none as savagely as John Bolton, the recently appointed national-security advisor.  He provides the insight of Lawrence Wilkerson who was Colin Powell’s chief of staff during the Bush administration.

“Bolton, known in Washington as a maximalist hawk, is arguably the most volatile addition to the Administration since its inception—an unrepentant advocate of the Iraq War who has also argued for regime change in Iran and in North Korea. ‘He lied repeatedly during his time at State,’ Wilkerson told me. In 2002, when Bolton was the department’s top arms-control official, he planned to accuse Cuba of developing a secret biological-weapons program. When a lower-ranking intelligence official, Christian Westermann, spoke up to say that the accusation was unsupportable, Bolton tried to have him fired, telling his boss that he wouldn’t take orders from a ‘mid-level munchkin’.”

“To Wilkerson, Bolton’s arrival at the center of American national security is alarming. He recalled an encounter in 2002, when Bolton was publicly calling for Bush to confront North Korea. At the time, Wilkerson, who had served thirty-one years in the Army, cautioned Bolton that an attack on Seoul would result in enormous casualties. ‘John stops me mid-sentence and says, “Wait a minute, I don’t do casualties and things like that. That’s your bailiwick’,” Wilkerson told me. ‘The man has no comprehension of the young men and women that have to carry out his goddam wars.’ He continued, ‘He thinks it’s right to shape a narrative that’s false, so long as that narrative is leading to a “better” purpose’.”

To Wilkerson, all the talk of the “Iran menace” is reminiscent of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.  Osnos finishes his article by providing a comparison between the incompetence and the self-serving misuse of facts of that earlier era and the manufactured truths of the Trump era.  He likens the Trump White House to the Green Zone (ultimately known as the Emerald City) from which Bush loyalists mismanaged Iraq.

“As the problems accumulated, so did the vacant offices in the Green Zone, because people in Washington were unwilling to join. The Administration turned, more than ever, to loyalists. Officials screening new American prospects sometimes asked whether they had voted for Bush and how they saw Roe v. Wade. A cohort of recent college grads, recruited because they had applied for jobs at the Heritage Foundation, were put in charge of Iraq’s national budget. The rebuilding of the stock market was entrusted to a twenty-four-year-old. ‘They wanted to insure lockstep political orientation,’ Wilkerson recalled. ‘And what we got out of that was a lockstep-stupid political orientation’.”

“Similarly, the mistakes that the Trump Administration has made are likely to multiply: the dismantling of the State Department; the denigration of the civil service; the exclusion of experts on Iran and climate change; the fictional statistics about undocumented immigrants; and the effort to squelch dissent across the government. Absent a radical change, the Administration has no mechanism for self-correction. It will not get normal; it will get worse.”

Osnos ends with this assessment.

“Midway through its second year, Trump’s White House is at war within and without, racing to banish the ‘disloyals’ and to beat back threatening information. Bit by bit, the White House is becoming Trump’s Emerald City: isolated, fortified against nonbelievers, entranced by its mythmaker, and constantly vulnerable to the risks of revelation.”

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