July 14, 2020
Should Joe Biden win in November, he will be returning to reign over a federal government he may not recognize. A government that could be hard-pressed to put his climate policies and programs into operation. For that–he’ll have Donald Trump to thank.
Trump has never hidden his disdain for the Capitol City crowd that includes the 300,000 or so individuals who work directly for the federal government in the Washington metro area. That is to say nothing of the tens of thousands of support contractors who augment the work of the agencies and thousands of lobbyists who daily swarm Capitol Hill and agency headquarters wanting to make sure that budgets and regulations have something in them for their clients. As George Packer writes in The Atlantic:
To Trump and his supporters, the swamp was full of scheming conspirators in drab DC office wear, coup plotters hidden-in plain sight at desks, in lunchrooms, and on jogging paths around the federal capital: the deep state.
As a candidate, Trump promised to drain the swamp. As president, he blames the deep state’s being out to get HIM as the reason for nearly every problem he and his administration have encountered in the course of their tenure. Lately, those problems have included decisions by the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in matters of immigration, abortion, and environmental regulation.
Mr. Trump has failed to make good on his campaign promise of draining the swamp. What he has done is swap one set of swampers for another. A set that is loyal to HIM and only to HIM. These new swampers demand the bureaucracy to put aside the rules of law and science to accommodate and conform to their president’s political will.
Science only matters if it matters to HIM. Legal pathways that do not end where HE wants need not be followed. Government executives—whether appointed or career—that show any hesit-ancy to carry out HIS orders whatever the reason will be fired, or hounded out of office. The consequence of demanding such fealty is predictable and, in the case of the federal government, has come to pass.
Trump’s demand and control management model has taken a particularly heavy toll on the federal agencies and programs responsible for developing science-based responses to Earth’s warming, e.g., new energy technologies, carbon sequestration, and regulation and oversight.
In the first two years of the Trump administration, over 1,600 federal scientists left government, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management analyzed by The Washington Post. The Obama administration, on the other hand, increased the number of science professionals by eight percent within months of taking office.
Unlike the combined efforts of Mr. Trump and Senators McConnell (R-KY), Graham (R-SC), and Grassley (R-IA) to fill every available slot on the federal judicial bench—over 200 positions—the White House has been slow to fill senior science positions in the agencies. Through the first three years of the Trump administration, for example, 700 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists left federal service. Only 350 were hired to replace them.
Trump isn’t even particularly good at making non-judicial political appointments available to him as president. Of 755 positions requiring Senate confirmation, 151 slots either have no nominee or are still awaiting a nomination, 106 appointees are awaiting Senate action, and 513 have been confirmed. There are less than six months left in his first term.
Attrition in the ranks of federal scientists has occurred through a variety of means, including internal reorganizations. In the case of the Department of Agriculture (DOA), a plan to relocate two of its key scientific agencies from the District of Columbia to the Kansas City Region[i] has resulted in the loss of hundreds of skilled and experienced career employees.
Two-thirds of the affected employees of DOA’s Economic Research Service refused to make the move. Eight of every ten employees of the National Institute of Food that oversees $1.7 billion in scientific research chose to find work elsewhere. According to the Washington Post, restoring the two offices to their Obama size requires hiring 400 more scientists.
The federal bureaucracy is the group a lot of people love to hate—including Mr. Trump. In my forty years in Capitol City, I’ve staffed several high-ranking political appointees at the Department of Energy. I can say in each instance and with total confidence that most of those in the federal government’s employ are there because they want to use their considerable skills to the advantage of the nation and take pride in their work.
I can also say with equal confidence that many of those same people can make life miserable for political appointees. Should anyone doubt my word, I’m happy to send pictures of my multiple scars. Nevertheless, respect begets respect.
Like them or hate them, bureaucrats are needed to run the government. Again, from experience, I can say with total confidence that the more experienced and practiced the individual, the more competent they are to guide you through what is recognizably an arcane system of doing business.
The biggest mistake people like Trump and those he’s brought into the government, e.g., former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, can make is to assume that government works like private industry. It doesn’t—and for some excellent reasons. Not the least of these is transparency. Spending the people’s money carries with it great responsibility, which is something Mr. Trump has found out the hard way in terms of his administration’s losses in court when attempting to play fast and loose with federal appropriations.
Trump’s caustic brand of management may have been well-suited to his businesses and enjoyed by reality TV show audiences. It has certainly left something to be desired in the nation’s chief executive.
Trump’s having chased the thousands of physical and social scientists, attorneys, medical professionals, procurement experts, and myriad others that will be needed by the next Congress and chief executive if they are to implement their policies and programs is not the worst consequence of his presidency.
What could be worse is the unwillingness of the nation to believe what the next government tells them are the causes, consequences, and ultimate cures of climate change.
The argument will go something like this. How can we, the people, be expected to trust the word of government if its political appointees and career professionals can be cowed into confirming falsified facts offered up by a bellicose leader in support of their policy mistakes?
If the nation is ever adequately to overcome the challenge of Earth’s warming, it will be necessary for it firmly to believe that its government always speaks truth to power.
[i] On both sides of the Kanas-Missouri border.
Lead image: Depiction of the battle by Jean Fouquet (c. 1415-1420)