The general election is still more than three months away, but the Donald Trump campaign, at least, is getting a jump start on transition planning, and transition chief Chris Christie has some big ideas for how to make the federal bureaucracy great again.
Reuters’s Emily Flitter reports that Christie told a donor meeting on Tuesday that Trump will try to purge the government of Obama appointees, out of "fear that Obama may convert these appointees to civil servants, who have more job security than officials who have been politically appointed."
To make that process easier, Christie reportedly said, "One of the things I have suggested to Donald is that we have to immediately ask the Republican Congress to change the civil service laws. Because if they do, it will make it a lot easier to fire those people."
In other words, Christie and Trump would seek to replace the current civil service system, which involves extensive protections meant to keep workers from being fired for political reasons, with a system specifically designed to make it very easy to fire workers for political reasons.
Revolving door government, but without actual revolving
Flitter also reports that Christie and Trump want to "let businesspeople serve in government part time without having to give up their jobs in the private sector." Ostensibly, the purpose of this would be to allow the government to recruit better private sector talent.
But the problems with this idea are pretty clear. Regulatory capture — in which regulatory structures are dominated by people sympathetic to or with ties to the industry they’re regulating — is a major problem in federal agencies, particularly with financial and environmental regulators, and most analysts place some of the blame on the ease with which, say, oil company employees can get jobs regulating the oil sector and then go right back to oil companies after their time in government is over.
The Christie/Trump proposal would allow that kind of revolving door to take place without actual revolving. Regulators could be working for the companies they’re regulating as they’re regulating them.
Trump, for instance, has promised donors that he wants to appoint former Goldman Sachs banker and movie producer Steve Mnuchin as Treasury secretary:
The Trump/Christie proposal could allow someone like Mnuchin to serve in the Cabinet part time, in which capacity he’d be charged with regulating the banking sector while engaging in banking work in his day job simultaneously.
An impartial bureaucracy is a key part of the modern state
Trump and Christie are reviving a very old tendency in the Republican party, associated with the "Stalwarts" after Reconstruction. Once federal troops had pulled out of the South and national Republicans had given up the project of robustly enforced racial equality in the former Confederacy, the GOP split into two factions, divided entirely on their views about the propriety of patronage.
The Stalwarts, led by former President Ulysses S. Grant and New York Sen. Roscoe Conkling, defended patronage as necessary for building political coalitions, and moreover as one of the few means of advancement for black Americans after Reconstruction fell short.
"Patronage is typically characterized as a malignant system of graft, corruption, and undemocratic politics," University of Richmond historian Eric Yellin writes in his history of racism in government employment, Racism in the Nation's Service.
But, Yellin continues, "Patronage greatly facilitated African-American citizens' claims to decent jobs, social mobility, and civil equality in circumstances that denied them other ways to express these claims." Indeed, even in the modern era the federal bureaucracy has a greater percentage of black employees as compared with the general population, something that has irked Pat Buchanan in recent years.
Standing against the Stalwarts were the "Half-Breeds," Republicans who agreed with Democratic demands for civil service reforms and a professionalized federal bureaucracy. These Democratic efforts, befitting the party’s purpose at the time as the leading political arm of white supremacy, were tinged with a desire to curb black employment and social advancement.
It’s no coincidence that the civil service act eventually passed in 1883 bore the name of Sen. George Pendleton, who as a House member was a leading opponent of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. (The Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens quipped during the 13th Amendment debate that Pendleton’s epitaph should read, "Here rests the ablest and most pertinacious defender of slavery and opponent of liberty.")
The 1883 Pendleton Act’s passage, done in the wake of Half-Breed President James Garfield’s assassination by a Stalwart disgruntled by his failure to secure an appointment, settled the debate. And while the origins of civil service reform in the US were ugly, and there’s definitely an argument to be made that the push went too far, the modern, less racist version of the federal civil service system has a lot to be said for it.
Today’s independent civil services mean agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau can produce statistics and data usable by the private sector that everyone trusts. It means the Food and Drug Administration can fairly evaluate food and drug safety while under much less political pressure than an FDA stocked with political appointees would face. It means the Environmental Protection Agency can, on occasion, push through tough regulations to curb harmful pollution even when industry is set against it and there’s little political motive for the White House to want new rules.
Weakening that system has costs. It could imperil the reputation and standing of the federal government, and produce rules and regulations that let industry act with impunity and cater to the whims of Congress members with affected businesses in their districts. And letting business people come in and be regulators while still running their businesses, as Christie and Trump are proposing, runs against the very purpose of having an independent federal bureaucracy at all.