he words arrived 26 minutes into President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, and when they came, they sounded vague: Trump asked Congress “to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” He also mentioned a new law making it easier for the Department of Veteran Affairs to fire employees.
The lines weren’t widely noted. But in a few places, sudden alarm bells went off: “Trump looks to expand VA’s firing authority government-wide,” ran a headline in FCW, a publication on government technology. The New Yorker dangled the prospect that Trump might be hinting at firing members of the FBI. Slate bit down harder: “Donald Trump Just Asked Congress to End the Rule of Law,” blared a headline.
His plan might not be that extreme, but Trump’s words did lay down a marker that could have repercussions throughout the government—maybe even declaring a new front in what former aide Steve Bannon called “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”
This new shot on the bureaucracy builds on Trump’s previous attacks on the so-called administrative state, from criticizing individual federal workers to efforts to reshape agencies altogether. He instituted a government-wide hiring freeze on his third day in office; in March, he directed federal agencies to draw up reorganization plans. He’s also installed small-government crusaders in critical White House positions who are quietly—critics say secretly—drawing up plans to reorganize the federal bureaucracy.
It’s all part of Trump’s broader promise to run the government like a business, streamlining agencies and squeezing out efficiencies that save taxpayer money. But one of the biggest obstacles to such an overhaul is the vast federal workforce of 2 million employees—workers who are, by and large, difficult to fire. While political appointees set the direction of individual agencies, these civil servants do the actual nuts-and-bolts tasks of governing, from running statistical surveys to writing regulations.
Trump hasn’t said whether he wants to extend the VA law more broadly, and it’s unclear just how he plans to tackle federal personnel laws overall. The most extreme interpretation of his comment is that he wants to abolish civil service protections altogether, a radical idea. “He wants to move from a democracy to an autocracy, without any question, where every federal employee is like-minded and votes one way,” Cox said. In the Slate piece, author Yascha Mounk, a democracy scholar, wrote that “Trump called on Congress to give him unprecedented and unquestionably antidemocratic powers.”
(Excerpted from Politico 2/1/18