When researchers sponsored by Duke University were developing their “Climate 21” proposals for future climate policy earlier this year, they interviewed more than 150 government officials, including current and former members of the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, plus departments such as Interior, Agriculture and Treasury. “The overwhelming response we got is the federal government in these agencies has been completely hollowed out,” says Christy Goldfuss, Climate 21 co-chair. “There’s nobody answering the phone. This is a huge sadness. The morale has sunk so low.”
President Trump has repeatedly trashed government at nearly every level, from nattering about a nonexistent “deep state” to criticizing and sometimes firing his own appointees. Trump has outdone predecessors in filling the bureaucracy with patronage jobs for cronies, while also leaving whole departments unstaffed. As a result, President-elect Biden will inherit the most dysfunctional government in at least 50 years, with trust in government close to historic lows.
There’s no simple way to judge the effectiveness or hollowness of the federal government, since it doesn’t have a stock price that renders the judgment of the market every day. But there are proxies. The Brookings Institution has measured turnover at top jobs in the Trump administration, and found the turnover rate to be higher – in some cases far higher – than in prior administrations going back to the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
Trump has averaged 11 Cabinet-level changes per year, for instance, compared with three for President Obama and two for George W. Bush. Among senior advisers who are not Cabinet members, Trump’s four-year turnover rate is 91%, compared with 71% for Obama and 63% for Bush. Frequent comings-and-goings of senior officials can leave the staffs they lead rudderless and compel some to leave for more predictable work elsewhere.
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Trump has also relied far more on “acting” appointees who never get formally confirmed by the Senate, whom he considers easier to replace if they don’t work out. But that also creates instability in those departments and handicaps long-term planning. Other jobs Trump has left vacant for most or all of his presidency. “He has shown disdain for staffing and personnel across the board,” says Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution. “This was not an administration that was fully staffed or experienced.”
At the same time, Trump added more layers of government, often by creating new titles for appointees and thereby creating a new reporting level in the chain of command. This despite Trump’s frequent complaints about the sprawl of government, and official budgets that would have slashed the federal payroll, if Congress ever approved them. “For all he said about cutting, he was the king of bloat,” says New York University professor Paul Light, who tracks the size of government for Brookings. “He created positions as favors to people. That often involved putting somebody in a job that hadn’t existed before.”
4.3 ‘breakdowns’ per year
All presidents offering patronage jobs, to some extent. The federal bureaucracy has been swelling for decades, and many Americans think it’s too big. Has Trump’s management, or mismanagement, of the government harmed the country in any way?
Data suggests yes. Light has been tracking government “breakdowns” since the Reagan years, and Trump’s tally—4.3 breakdowns per year, on average—is higher than every one of his five predecessors. Light defines a breakdown as a problem serious enough to generate news coverage either caused or enabled by the government. Examples from Trump’s term: The sluggish response to Hurricane Maria in 2017, lax federal oversight that preceded the Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019, and the uproar over postal service slowdowns in 2020.
Light doesn’t include the Trump administration’s faltering response to the coronavirus pandemic as a breakdown. But he does point out that there are 18 layers of government between Trump’s top health policy official and the national stockpile of protective gear, which might explain some of the difficulty getting masks and other protective gear to frontline health workers desperately needing it. Some still report shortages.
Trump’s ad hoc staffing style has also undermined his own policy goals. In November, a federal judge invalidated a change to immigration policy the Homeland Security Department tried to impose in July. The Senate has never confirmed the current head of DHS, Chad Wolf, who’s serving in an “acting” capacity. The judge said Wolf lacked the legal authority to make the change because he’s never been confirmed. Of the five people who have led Trump’s Homeland Security Department during the last four years, only two have been confirmed.
Biden plans a more activist government than Trump, and understaffed, demoralized agencies could mean a slower start to Biden’s agenda than usual for an incoming president. But Trump could also be doing Biden a favor. “It’s a really good opportunity to do some repairs,” says Light. “The Biden people have a chance to get rid of layers. They shouldn’t fill layers. They should just get rid of them.”
Trump may also leave a lot of jobs open for a new corps of civil servants. “For Biden, they’re expecting some of this,” says Dunn Tenpas. “They can encourage bright young college grads to be applying for these jobs. They believe in the government and the importance of these jobs.” Biden is also choosing many experienced government hands, such as chief of staff Ron Klain, with experience staffing a government. They won’t be following the Trump model.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.