What’s most appealing about Donald Trump’s victory (with apologies to my friends who believe he’s the incarnation of evil) is the prospect of long-overdue government reform. His “drain the swamp” campaign pledge resonated because 75% of Americans believe there’s widespread corruption in the federal government.
The deepest swamp in Washington is not politicians and lobbyists, but an unelected federal bureaucracy that writes and enforces thousands of regulations. Term limits for Congress aren’t the answer. That would make it even easier for entrenched bureaucrats to outlast the people’s representatives.
Donald Trump and the Republican Congress have an opportunity to disrupt the executive branch, and that’s a good thing. My corporate career made me a big fan of disruption. Companies re-invent themselves regularly to stay competitive, and bring in new management to take the enterprise in a new direction.
In the federal government, however, every Trump cabinet appointee will inherit hundreds of executives who may oppose the new administration and are virtually impossible to fire, even for misconduct. In some cases political appointees “burrow” into permanent positions with civil service protection. Politicians are even urging federal employees to actively resist the Trump administration’s policies. No private enterprise tolerates this. When a company changes direction, executives who don’t get on board go out the door.
So Congress needs to reform the civil service system to give federal agencies the same capability for change as private companies. Folks like payroll clerks and wildlife inspectors must be protected, but government executives should be as accountable as their private-sector counterparts. Government agencies need the authority to fire executives (above GS-15) for poor performance, policy violations or criminal behavior without going through years of civil service reviews.
Private companies often cushion major shake-ups with buyout offers that make it easier for managers to leave. Congress should enact a short-term program to offer a graceful exit to federal managers who disagree with their agencies’ new policies.
Conflict-of-interest rules need to be tightened. Environmental Protection Agency employees should not be in cahoots with Exxon Mobil or the Sierra Club, and we don’t want Treasury Department officials to help their Wall Street cronies. Yet it doesn’t make sense to bar experts from government positions just because they used to work for a private company or association. We need a thoughtful solution to enable talented industry professionals to serve the public without corrupting the fairness we expect of government.
Congressional oversight of federal agencies is broken. Democrats fought investigations of the Obama administration, inspector general positions were left vacant and the Department of Justice declined to prosecute corruption. There is nothing to prevent Republicans and a Trump administration from doing likewise. We need something like a bipartisan commission reporting to Congress to hold the administration accountable.
Reforming federal agencies may be the most daunting challenge for the new administration because public employee unions finance all Democrats and some Republicans. In recent years legislation to give the Department of Veterans Affairs more authority to fire employees was blocked or watered down by Congress.
With a Congressional majority and overwhelming public support, the opportunity has never been better to reform the executive branch. It will be a tough fight because every new policy direction will meet with stiff opposition from special interests and howling outrage from the celebritocracy and the news media. But if President-elect Trump is serious about draining the swamp, this is the place to start.