The Donald Trump administration’s Schedule F proposal to make it possible to discipline and fire “tens of thousands of federal employees” — and the former president’s recent threat to reestablish it if reelected — shocked political Washington. But the pro-bureaucracy Government Executive (GE) magazine warns of an even more dangerous threat.
GE explains that Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist “credited with inspiring” the Trump-proposed executive order meant to end the so-called “diversity and inclusionary training” for government employees, is at it again. He has now proposed (in the “right-wing” publication IM-1776) that the next conservative president should utilize the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to get “ideological control” over the policies of major government agencies.
This concern by the normally perceptive GE, however, is a century late. The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 — inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s 1887 “Study of Administration” — already has granted that power to OMB. Only, instead of calling it “ideological control,” Wilson called it “expert bureaucracy” control. For the last century or so, OMB has been the most powerful agency in the national government in second-guessing agency policy decisions and overriding local expertise in favor of the permanent interests of the administrative state.
Today’s government does too much and is tied, like Gulliver, in so many ways that it cannot act.
The progressive idea was for the democratically elected president to use OMB’s budget powers to force agencies to implement his voter-endorsed program. But no modern president — being the ultimate outsider — has been able to match the expertise of the permanent experts at OMB. Elected officials and appointees are even forced to leave the very wording of statutes to the experts, the politicos at best reading summaries. The actual law details are left to OMB and its permanent government contacts in the agencies, congressional staff, and lobbyists — the so-called governmental Iron Triangle.
But Rufo is optimistic about using OMB to advance a right-wing agenda. He said:
We could easily wipe out a significant portion of the infrastructure for the left-wing ideologies within the federal bureaucracy and within the network of federal grantees and contractors, which would shift American politics in the right direction.
Many before Rufo have tried, but all have failed. President Jimmy Carter even passed a comprehensive Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) in 1978 to legally give agency political appointees more power over the bureaucracy, with President Ronald Reagan implementing it in 1981. It worked for a few years but was fought throughout by OMB, which moderated CSRA during its legislative journey through Congress and then, afterwards, helped agency experts and allies in Congress to modify CSRA’s reforms. Today, we are basically back to the system Carter was elected to change — but worse, as aspects of his reforms are now forbidden by both law and regulation.
The main obstacle to effective government decision-making has always been dread of making necessary decisions for fear of bad publicity or worse. Bad coverage in the Washington Post is the graveyard of government careers. Everyone in Washington knows that doing nothing is the safest way. For example, after a news report claiming that I was hiring a top assistant, I received a call from an old political associate who asked why I was doing so. He listened and replied he had never heard anything bad about him, and continued, “Obviously, he never did anything.” That is how Washington works and is why left, right, and center do not trust government anymore.
And further empowering OMB simply sets the fox in charge of the chicken coop, only increasing the number of Cassidy Hutchinsons seeking publicity or revenge. All these smart guys know whom to go to in the Post to get the needed attention. And, of course, all of Trump’s executive orders limiting bureaucracy were overturned early on in the Biden administration.
Today’s government does too much and is tied, like Gulliver, in so many ways that it cannot act. It simply does not work. A workable government must first turn many of its powers not enumerated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution back to states and the private sector and then concentrate on a few essential national functions such as protecting the country. As far as the remaining bureaucratic administration goes, Washington needs a new civil service reform act, getting back to Carter–Reagan principles, cabinetgovernment, and flexible bureaucratic management tools like Schedule F. This will require working with a Congress willing and able to make major change.
And a president will need to go directly to the agencies rather than having their most reliable people comfortably placed in the White House and its attached OMB. He must send the best of his appointees to where the government actually operates, in the departments and agencies that desperately need courageous leadership.
Is this all academic? I have been arguing here at The American Spectator for a year that the 2022 and 2024 elections might present the opportunity for a massive repudiation of Wilsonian progressivism by an overwhelmingly Republican presidential victory with two-thirds majorities in Congress. Even progressives are now understanding this possibility. But the Right still has not devised the radical policy replacements needed to combat the coming economic recession and social upheaval that are today’s exhausted legacy of the long rule of political progressivism.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, new from Encounter Books; America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution; and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.
Reporting by The American Spectator.