In 2016, American voters thought they were electing a president, not millions of bureaucrats.
When President Trump called for the ability “to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people” in his State of the Union speech early this year, few Americans likely realize what a huge departure that would be from the current federal bureaucracy. In fact, under our current civil service laws, what seems like a very basic promise is totally unachievable.
In 1849, Lincoln emphasized the importance of the connection between the elected president and the policies carried out by his administration in a letter about then-President Zachary Taylor. “The appointments [of federal employees] need be no better than they have been, but the public must be brought to understand that they are the president’s appointments.” In other words, democracy’s relevance depends on the direct chain of command from the voters to the officials they elect, and from them to those who carry out the policies the candidate promised.
After a century of civil service “reforms,” job protections for federal workers are so extreme that it can take years of appeals to fire one of the 2.8 million employees even for the most egregious of misconduct. The system is so Byzantine that even employees convicted of work-related felonies can drag out their cases, all the while cashing checks from the U.S. taxpayer.
The narrow grounds for dismissal and the four overlapping appeals boards discourage so many managers from even beginning the process of removing underperforming employees that Congress had to pass a special law attempting to cut through the red tape just to tackle the problem of widespread on-the-job pornography use. Still, only a fraction of a percentage of the federal workforce was dismissed in 2017.
But inefficacy and legendary screw-ups aren’t the only legacy of the current civil service system. The most important result has been the creation of a class of government power-brokers who are increasingly unaccountable to the people, even while they make decisions that affect the lives of everyday Americans. Regardless of the current occupant of the Oval Office, the vast majority of the federal workforce carries on as they have before, treating even monumental elections like 2016 as the mere swapping out of dinghy-sized rudders on the titanic ship of state.
In a republic, the election-independence of much of the government should be deeply worrying in itself, but the accountability problem is exasperated by the fact that the civil service is blatantly partisan. In 2016, 95 percent of donations from federal employees went to Hillary Clinton. Taxpayers who voted for Donald Trump are footing the bill for the salaries of employees who attend public seminars on how to use their positions to #resist his policies from within.
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to categorize the civil service as the wing of the Democratic Party that doesn’t have the inconvenience of standing for election. A State Department worker caught on tape by Project Veritas recently summed up the situation: “I have nothing to lose, it’s impossible to fire federal employees.”
The professionalized civil service, a turn-of-the-century progressive dream, was meant to make government administration efficient and apolitical. But even the progressives still imagined a role for democracy in setting the political course of the nation; they wouldn’t recognize today’s bureaucracy, which is free to defy political instructions given by the voters.
The progressive cure was worse than the disease. Job protections that were meant to insulate the federal workforce from corruption and machine politics have created a permanent bureaucracy that has been neither efficient nor apolitical, but instead has become a powerful class with its own interests, totally unaccountable to voters.
The “deep state” doesn’t have to shop dossiers or engage in operations with outlandish spy-novel names in order to undercut the Trump administration, or for that matter, any elected president. The ever-increasing administrative state now handles the vast majority of government business, and the decision makers within it are virtually impervious to the winds of democracy.
In breaking the link between the office of the president and those who carry out his policies, civil service protections have severed the only form of accountability in a democracy: the right of the voters to fire the guy in charge and change course.