Donald Trump has appointed manifestly unqualified hacks to gut agencies whose missions they oppose – bringing new urgency to efforts to reform the political-appointment process.
The fact is that congressional legislation creates these agencies, authorizes them to engage in certain activities and programs, and funds them. So it should be more of an issue when the president tries to destroy them from within.
University of Texas public policy professor Don Kettl tells me that even when previous Republican presidents expressed hostility for a particular agency, their appointments were not nearly as radical as Trump’s. “There’s usually been a grudging respect for the mission of the departments,” he said. “I just don’t recall any time in the past where there’s been such an intent to appoint people interested in doing the bureaucracy in.”
The problem, as with so many other instances in which Trump’s excesses have gone unchecked, is Congress.
“Congress has abdicated its responsibilities in very real ways,” says Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that tries to make government work better.
One problem, he says, is that there are entirely too many political appointees. According to the government’s official “Plum Book,” there are more than 1,200 positions appointed by the president that require Senate confirmation – and about 2,000 more that he can simply install on his own.
“I’m quite confident that you could quite easily get rid of more than half — and I would argue more than two thirds — of the Senate confirmed ones and you would be just fine,” Stier says.
It makes sense that a president should be able to install enough people to put his policy stamp on an agency. “But then there’s the entourage,” Stier says – the senior advisers, senior counsels, special counsels, chiefs of staff, deputy chiefs of staff. “They’re just free radicals that interfere with an effectively run organization.”
And Congress has also failed to properly exercise its authorization and appropriation powers. Stier argues that Congress should regularly review and update what the agencies are authorized to do, and should provide budgets that reflect those authorizations — on time and for more than a single year.
“Congress has a ton of power if it uses it, and uses it right,” Stier says.
The poster child in Trump’s agency sabotage is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by Congress in 2010 to protect ordinary Americans from defective financial practices.
As the Washington Post reported last week, in gripping detail, Trump has filled the upper echelons of the CFPB with people who oppose its very existence, undermine its mission, and torment the people who work there.
Ketl says that although it’s hard to entirely unwind an agency, “there are people scattered throughout the Trump team who have discovered that there are certain levers of power they can use that allow them to go a surprising way down the road of Trump’s goal of disabling some of these agencies.”
“It turns out that if you can put the right people in the right places, you can pull the bricks out bit by bit and cause a substantial amount of destabilization,” he says.
Trump appointed Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney to also be acting director of the CFPB last November – invoking the controversial Federal Vacancies Reform Act to install an outsider who had called the bureau a “sick, sad” joke, instead of allowing the deputy director to run things on a temporary basis.
It wasn’t until last week that Senate Republicans confirmed another White House official and Trump loyalist, Kathy Kraninger, to be CFPB’s director.
The Senate, of course, could have rejected Kraninger because of her startling lack of any relevant experience – that’s the easiest and most straightforward way Congress can block the appointment of people bent on sabotage.
But Mulvaney wouldn’t have been in charge for more than a year if Congress had made the federal vacancy-filling rules more precise, and had more explicitly mandated that senior career professionals be left in charge until the president’s nominee is confirmed.
Going forward, Congress could also establish formal qualifications and performance plans for political appointees. “There has never been a real appreciation for what the leadership responsibilities are when the political appointees come in,” Stier says. In fact, political appointees “typically don’t see their job as the health of the organization they’re responsible for… they see their job as policy creation and, when forced to, crisis management.”
The performance plans should be supplemented by real-time performance information, Stier says. “You need transparency around performance.”
And while there’s probably not a lot of room for progress while the Senate is controlled by Trump’s party, there’s still one thing the House can do.
“You can hold lots of embarrassing hearings” and call attention to congressional mandates that are being ignored or violated, Kettl says. “That’s the sort of thing you can do and there’s every indication that the Democrats in the House will do.”