Never before have the roles of government workers taken on such significance. But there could be consequences to using their power to undermine the administration.
It’s never easy to be a civil servant when the White House changes hands, and especially when it changes political parties. When a new president ascends to the Oval Office, he becomes at once civil servants’ new boss and the personification of whatever changes he promised on the campaign trail—changes, that is, to the very work those civil servants were dutifully executing until the moment he was sworn in on Inauguration Day.
Rarely have those revisions been as dramatic as the ones pledged by then-candidate Donald Trump, and never before has civil servants’ role in government taken on such significance. Throughout the president’s chaotic first year in office, civil servants—the public officials who make up the federal government’s silent majority—have continued the essential work of administering federal programs, overseeing regulatory regimes, and generally keeping operations humming as best they can.
They’ve also influenced the direction of government in 2017 in subtle, but crucial, ways: by containing some of the excesses of a new administration and by pushing the White House toward sounder policy outcomes. But should civil servants grow more emboldened to assert their collective power in ways that actively undermine legitimate policy choices of the current leadership, it could exacerbate existing tensions within the government, with detrimental consequences for the country.
There was more than the mere promise of change awaiting this corps of workers as January 20 arrived this year. While Barack Obama ran in many ways against George W. Bush, Donald Trump ran in all ways against Barack Obama—a man whose very citizenship Trump contested, not to mention his governance. The new White House pledged to undo much of the last administration’s work and to make government “more effective and more efficient” by “draining the swamp.”
What’s more, many civil servants worked for months without political leadership to give them direction. Even today, over a hundred of Trump’s nominees for “key positions” in the federal government haven’t been confirmed by the Senate, and hundreds of positions still lack a nominee. And the leadership that does exist, especially at the Cabinet level, is unprecedented in modern times in its lack of prior government experience.
In short, one could forgive American civil servants for finding 2017 a trying year. But, much of the time, they did exactly what they’ve always done: their jobs.
Whatever the fraught relationship between the attorney general and the president—and despite the unceremonious dumping of the FBI director—Justice Department prosecutors and FBI investigators around the United States have continued to investigate and prosecute crimes. Whatever the skepticism toward climate change harbored by Scott Pruitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency’s enforcers and their Justice Department colleagues have continued to identify and seek restitution for violations of environmental laws. Whatever the reason that Trump has resisted declaring the opioid crisis a “national emergency,” the Department of Health and Human Services has dispensed new information to the public about the drugs’ dangers and issued new guidance for health-care providers. The list of recent accomplishments goes on: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have rolled out a new effort to address antibiotic resistance; the Department of Agriculture has announced more than $1 billion in investment aimed at improving health-care services in rural areas; the Department of Labor continues to obtain cash payments for employees systematically mistreated by their employers; and so on.
At other times this year, it’s seemed nearly impossible for civil servants to do their jobs—and they’ve pushed back as a result. There have been resignations in protest of policy changes on climate change and global-trade rules; complaints filed by whistleblowers alleging retaliatory reassignment; subject-matter experts reassigned to politically driven work; a major advisory committee disbanded; and public confrontations with the president on ethics issues. As regulatory rollbacks continue at a frenzied pace, there are swelling ranks of civil servants who’ve lost key enforcement tools once at their disposal. There are also particular departments and agencies—State and Interior come to mind—that appear so deliberately hollowed out by their Cabinet-level leadership that it’s hard to tell how much of their critical work is still getting done.
Indeed, there’s conceivably a danger looming in the dynamic between civil servants and political leadership. A year into governing, the administration may prove increasingly capable of imposing its predilections on the often-unwieldy bureaucracy. It has, within the bounds of the law and propriety, a right to do so: The bureaucracy exists, fundamentally, to implement the will of those voted into office. But, if civil servants were to push back more aggressively simply because they disagree with Trump’s policy aims, it would test the boundaries between what it means to educate and guide new political leadership and what it means to undermine it. And civil servants working directly against the elected leadership could lead a White House already predisposed toward insular decision-making to retreat even further, shutting out voices they desperately need to hear before making critical policy calls.
For now, however, these government workers appear to have some influence. Take, for example, the president’s abrupt about-face on sending the suspect in October’s terrorist attack in downtown Manhattan, Sayfullo Saipov, to Guantanamo Bay. Within 24 hours, Trump went from calling for Saipov to be dispatched to the detention camp to declaring that Saipov’s case would be handled within the criminal-justice system—the same one that, a day earlier, he had mocked as “a joke and ... a laughingstock.”
It’s unclear what changed the president’s mind so quickly. But I’d like to think that civil servants played a role—they’ve seen, on the one hand, the effectiveness of the criminal-justice system in taking terrorists off the battlefield and, on the other, the complications associated with detention and military prosecution in Guantanamo. Civil servants who’ve dealt with both firsthand may have gotten the right information to the right people to influence Trump’s thinking.
That’s what the American civil servant does: develop expertise, offer continuity, speak truth to power. The country has perhaps never needed it more than it did during the turbulence of 2017.