President TrumpDonald Trump’s Red Queen Justice Biden: How He Destroyed Both Investigation and Border Officer Reputation Trump Asks Judge To Force Twitter To Lift Ban Trump Teases Schumer About Occasional Ocasio Challenge Cortez MORE considered dismissing Antoine FauciAnthony FauciFauci: Merck Pill Results to Treat COVID-19 ‘Impressive’ Watch Live: White House COVID-19 Response Team Hold Media Availability, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. Fortunately, he can’t do it. Fauci is a career civil servant and therefore cannot be dismissed without cause. But Trump just signed an executive order that would allow him to fire Fauci and tens of thousands of other federal employees. If implemented, it represents the end of the American system of a politically neutral, merit-based public service, a critical pillar of American democracy and power over the past century.
With around 4,000 political appointments today, the US federal government is already an outlier in terms of political control of the bureaucracy. Trump’s plan could lead to a tenfold increase, creating an entirely different system transforming any federal official with a role in policymaking into a new class of political people at will. The vague nature of the “policy making” classification means that it can easily accommodate lower level officials who help with budget preparation or perform routine policy analysis.
The federal government has its problems, like any large organization. Many of these problems arise from the fact that public organizations have multiple bosses – Congress, the President, and the courts – who may disagree on the mission of the latter. We call on federal bureaucrats to balance these imperatives – to respond to presidential policies while remaining true to the law. Investing near absolute power in a president is a recipe for politicization, corruption and a return to the spoils system. Civil servants will be forced to become yes-men.
I have written about civil service reform and public sector performance, and agree with what other advocates of good government have argued for decades: a simple and effective way to improve government performance. government would reduce the number of political appointments. The best evidence we have is that these appointees make performance worse, especially when they lack relevant experience. Trump’s plan goes exactly in the opposite direction.
The performance of the Trump administration itself offers the best argument against its plans to politicize the public service. A president who refuses to listen to advice, and asserts the innate superiority of his own opinions over scientific expertise. Unqualified political appointments. Career officials who have been the subject of reprisals if they are suspected of disloyalty, which often means little more than providing unbiased political analysis. Trump removed inspectors general he saw as disloyal, undermining a primary basis of executive accountability.
Indeed, the main failures of the Trump administration stem in large part from its dismissal of career officials. Trump would have avoided impeachment if he had listened to career officials who warned him about the illegality of withholding public funds from Ukraine. Our COVID response would have been much better if Trump had listened to federal scientists and public health officials. Instead, the Trump appointees sought to undermine and guess at them, demanding to review and edit scientific papers. Career managers will be much less likely to speak the truth to power if it costs them their job.
Just as disturbing as the plan itself is the extraordinary expansion of presidential power it represents. Trump is making the most significant change to the management of our public service system since its inception by executive order and without public participation. He says, unlike 140 years of federal personnel policy, that he can simply ignore Congress and appoint himself as sole arbiter of the federal personnel system.
Where does this breathtaking takeover come from? The same unitary executive theory that grants the president complete dominance over the executive branch, and has been used to justify secret torture sites and the re-appropriation of Congressional funds for Trump’s border wall. This dangerous and emerging interpretation is that Article II of the Constitution gives the president the right to fire whoever he wants. The new executive order appears designed to attract legal challenge, with the hope that a conservative Supreme Court will agree to this radical deconstruction of public service institutions.
The origins of Trump’s plan reveal its purpose: It was presented to the Home Policy Council in 2017 as a “Constitutional option“Conforms to” an originalist interpretation “. But this was only continued after the impeachment, a time when Trump targeted federal officials who had spoken. Trump has reorganized his presidential appointments office telling them to find and root out the disloyal ones. Trump has appointed the acting head of the federal personnel system to someone who has said the origins of the civil service system are unconstitutional.
Americans are so used to a competent, non-partisan public service that we take it for granted and are prone to complain about it. The Trump years reaffirmed the value of this institution. Some of the most revealing moments over the past four years have come when officials spoke up, reminding us that their oath is to serve the Constitution, not a single President. If Trump is re-elected, these servants of the constitution will be shown the door.
Moynihan is a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. @donmoyn