Seemingly out of nowhere, it began as soon as President Trump was inaugurated. We’ve been seeing almost every day the odd news story about a federal agency going rogue, unauthorized twitter postings from the National Park Service’s Badlands unit, Trump transition teams imposing gag orders on agencies, and all other manner of friction and conflict.
What’s going on? The short answer is pretty simple: government agencies are like teenagers, they just WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE (accompanied by the sound of slamming their bedroom door). It is inherent to bureaucracies that they are driven by the desire for autonomy. They don’t like anyone telling them what they can and cannot do. Daniel Carpenter’s Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy (2001) captured this imperative when he studied examples of successful federal bureaus between the 1860s and the 1920s. He concluded that their careful cultivation of reputation, demonstration of their expertise and uniqueness, and engagement in active public relations all contributed to accomplishing autonomy
Autonomy from what? From Congress, from presidents and from the departments they were housed in.
The most spectacular example of bureaucratic autonomy and open rebellion from presidential control was at the U.S. Forest Service (a bureau within the U.S. Department of Agriculture), headed by Gifford Pinchot, at the beginning of President Taft’s administration. Pinchot had been a close ally of President Theodore Roosevelt. Even though Taft was more conservative on business matters than Roosevelt, he sought to be a public continuation of Roosevelt’s conservation policies. He kept Pinchot on. But Taft was increasingly impatient with Pinchot’s independence and public disagreements. Finally, in late 1909 Taft imposed a gag order on the executive branch contacts with Congress as a way of silencing Pinchot. Pinchot was not intimidated and kept it up. A few months later, in early 1920, Taft had to fire him in a messy and unpleasant public act. Stephen Ponder’s Managing the Press (1999) recounts this dramatic story well.
Another example was Secretary of Interior Walter Hickel during the first two years of Nixon’s presidency. Hickel was increasingly critical—publicly—of how Nixon was handling dissent regarding the Vietnam war. As a summer intern at the U.S. Geological Survey in 1970, I was in the audience when Hickel spoke in the Department’s auditorium to a large crowd of civil servants of the department. He declared that he would not be intimidated by administration hints to tone it down and keep it private. He was wildly applauded for saying that by civil servants who craved, above all, autonomy from political “interference.” Furious, Nixon had to bite his tongue until after the mid-term elections in November 1970. He then promptly sent an aide to fire Hickel and subdue the department’s bureaus.
I’d speculate that one of the underlying causes of the recent mini-controversies is tied to President Trump’s success in the business sector. His experience is that he was the boss, sitting at the top of the organizational pyramid. In short, what he said goes. Now he’s president and brings that worldview to the executive branch. It’s perfectly understandable. Furthermore, Constitution vests in him full executive powers. He knows what it means to be a chief executive. So, presumably, he and his team may have a general expectation that federal agencies should behave in a way similar to the multiple businesses he ran. He decides, they do. No arguing, please!
Certainly, people around him understand the more complex fabric of the federal government. The president is not the head of a unitary executive branch. Congress is an active partner in governing. This is a system of shared governance. Agencies cannot do what Congress won’t let them, no matter what the president says.
And it’s more complicated than that. There’s the civil service. During the Progressive era, in fits and starts, the country generally came to like the idea that the daily operation of government agencies should be by civil servants. Those civil servants would be hired based on a merit system. They would be neutral experts, apart from politics. They would not be hired and fired based on election results.
When he greatly expanded the civil service system at the federal level, President Franklin Roosevelt enunciated the management principle that policy-making positions of executive branch agencies should be filled by his appointees, while non-policy level jobs should be civil service. Presidents and their appointees would come and go, but the bureaucrats would be there permanently.
The last major patronage system in the federal government was terminated by President Nixon, when he ended the practice of the party in the White House appointing the postmasters in every locality around the country. Republican grassroots volunteers, eager for the prospect of local patronage jobs after enduring two terms of Democratic presidents, were severely disappointed.
We now we have the rather odd system of permanent civil servants, shared governance between Congress and presidents, and a president who succeeded as a boss in the business sector. I guess this is a governmental and political instance of unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
One more detail at play in the deep background is branding. Branding has become a powerful force in modern American life. Government agencies have understood branding long before it became a commonly discussed concept. That’s what the drive for autonomy is about. That’s also why agencies resist being identified with larger organizations they’re housed within. The National Weather Service does not want to be branded as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and certainly not as Department of Commerce. Their brand is the National Weather Service.
For those of us interested in American history, American Political Development, public administration, political science, and bureaucratic politics, the next four years (heck, the next four weeks) will be an illuminating example of all these conflicting forces at play. Does anyone want to write a dissertation about this?
In my case, I’m particularly interested in how a President and Congress of the same party will handle the principle of shared governance of the bureaucracy. Will the institutional perspectives of the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue ever conflict? I’m guessing the answer is yes, soon or later. Even if I’m wrong, buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Mordecai Lee, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a former state senator in the Wisconsin Legislature. His books include A Presidential Civil Service: FDR’s Liaison Office for Personnel Management (University of Alabama Press, 2016), Congress vs. the Bureaucracy: Muzzling Agency Public Relations (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011), and Nixon’s Super Secretaries: The Last Grand Presidential Reorganization Effort (Texas A&M University Press, 2010).