administration’s conflicts with Washington’s embedded bureaucracy aren’t mere partisan skirmishes but fundamental clashes. At play is a powerful dynamic that has spawned an increasingly powerful and unaccountable bureaucracy. Whether we call it the “deep state” or something else, this administration has run particularly afoul of the bureaucracy it was elected to manage. The bureaucracy has subverted notable parts of the president’s agenda, frequently by means of targeted leaks to the media.
This is not what the Founders intended. Constitutionally, the bureaucracy was supposed to support the executive branch; since the late 19th century, it was intended to be apolitical. President
1881 assassination by a disgruntled office seeker spurred the replacement of the “spoils system” with the civil service in 1883. Exam performance replaced party membership as the qualification for government jobs.
But the seemingly nonpartisan system had unforeseen liabilities. Despite a disinterested facade, individuals and institutions are intensely interested in advancement, each reinforcing the other. The bureaucracy’s expansion in size and scope is the individual bureaucrat’s gain in responsibility, power and prestige.
Initially, government’s small size obscured this dynamic. The 1890 census counted federal government employment, including the miliary, at only 78,000. USGovernmentSpending.com estimates federal spending at $384.3 million (just under $10 billion in 2017 dollars), a mere 2.5% of gross domestic product.
By 2017, the federal government employed 2.1 million civilians and spent $3.98 trillion—20.8% of GDP. A private-sector entity accounting for one-fifth of the economy would face relentless calls for regulation. But the illusion of disinterested behavior makes the reality of mutual aggrandizement by bureaucrats and the bureaucracy more difficult to control. Assuming bureaucracy to be impartial, we worry less about giving it power.
The government’s three constitutional branches are all accountable to the people—the president and Congress via the ballot box, the judiciary through the appointment process. The bureaucracy is publicly unchecked. Conceived as nonpartisan innovation, it has instead become an independent institution. Performing like economic maximizers in the private sector, bureaucrats’ desires for resources and responsibility are self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. This should be a concern to everyone who cares about constitutional and limited government, whatever one thinks of President Trump.
Several steps could be taken to increase bureaucratic accountability. Internally, administrations must first ensure people they can trust are in place quickly—something this one failed to do. Externally, this may be a good subject for an independent bipartisan commission. Government bureaucracy is an area in which both parties should appreciate the need for reform.
A commission could consider increasing the number of political appointees, thereby tying the bureaucracy more tightly to the executive. Restrictions on “burrowing in,” whereby political appointees convert into civil service, should also be considered. Other worthy measures would include reviewing grounds for removal of civil servants and expediting bureaucrats’ removal for cause.
Term limits, particularly in sensitive positions, are also worth considering. Calls for term limits in government have usually been directed at officials already accountable at the ballot box; hardly anyone talks about them for bureaucrats. But if they apply at the executive’s pinnacle—presidents and often governors—why not to the electorally immune who serve them? Bureaucrats were not intended to hold sinecures.
The first step of reform is recognition of the extraconstitutional role the entrenched bureaucracy has come to play. It is vastly larger and more powerful than anything the Founders could have imagined or accepted—or most Americans imagine now.
Mr. Young served under President
George W. Bush
in the Office of Management and Budget and Treasury Department. He was a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.