Bureaucrats are “the Program”

The citizens of Washington, D.C. are used to having their city constantly disparaged and civil servants from around the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) ably endure the endless stream of elected officials and pundits screaming that they are to blame for the nation’s ills.  It is part of life here, like lengthy motorcades and sport franchises that break your heart.  

Needless to say, what is happening today is different. The recent moves of the Trump Administration against the civil service show a willingness to go beyond the standard rhetoric and into the realm of punitive action against those would dare dissent. First things first, so there is no room for misunderstanding: our country needs civil servants and would cease to function without them.  A weakened civil service is a weakened country.  

Bureaucrat is not a term that should not be leveled as a derogatory epithet by people like White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. I highly doubt Mr. Spicer or Congressman McCarthy know how to conduct a nuclear weapons inspection, test for lead levels in elementary school water fountains, develop ebola vaccines, or even process a medicare check. Those are the sorts of things bureaucrats do and they do it quietly, competently and without fanfare or corporate backing. Most importantly, they don’t go around accusing other citizens of causing the all the problems in this country.   

I spent six and a half years as a political appointee at the State Department, working with and learning from an endless array of smart, patriotic, dedicated civil servants and foreign service officers.  I came into the Department with two relevant degrees and years of experience working on international security issues.  It took me about 30 minutes to realize that what I didn’t know about the actual day-to-day work of foreign policy could fill a Trump hotel.  I respected the wisdom and insights of my civil service colleagues.  I heeded their advice about how to write speeches, press guidance or testimonies with the whole nation’s interests in mind.  With any exception proving the rule, they put the policies of the President above their own personal politics.  

That is why I was floored last week when I saw that senior career diplomats were summarily pushed out of a Department that they had served for decades.  My fellow political appointees and I expected to leave and had three months to plan for it. Civil servants were selected to cover the pressing parts of our portfolios, since new appointees were nowhere in sight.  We worried that things would fall through the cracks, but found comfort in the fact that senior diplomats would continue, at least temporarily, in leadership positions.  After all, threats to embassy security, the continuing crisis in Ukraine and foreign military assistance are not things that can be put on the shelf and forgotten for a couple months without consequences.  That comfort faded away when the White House demanded that these leaders leave State, despite the lack of replacements.  

As I noted in a post last week, this was a completely unforced error.  There was no reason to believe that the career diplomats wouldn’t continue to ably aid in this transition.  In fact, there was strong evidence to believe that they would.  Even after the abrupt end to his 35-year career in the foreign service, Tom Countryman encouraged his colleagues to continue serving to the best of their ability.    

For the time being, the State Department is largely bereft of senior leaders, save the incoming secretary who arrived at Foggy Bottom with record opposition.  Despite that, Mr. Tillerson’s welcome remarks to State employees were a strong indication that he will value the advice of the public servants around him.  Whether the White House ever will is less clear.  

In the days that followed the purge at State, the President and his team rolled out the infamous, hastily-written Executive Order (EO) on refugees.  Multiple relevant departments were kept in the dark and those in the loop had their suggestions ignored.  Following unprecedented protests around the country the White House still chose not to work with civil servants to reassess or refine its directive. It instead lashed out at them, chastising the hundreds of diplomats who voiced their opinions through the State Department’s dissent channels and firing the Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director. President Trump’s firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend the EO, was sadly, not surprising.  What was surprising was the tone and tenor of the White House statement on the firing.  We have come to expect the repetition of words like “weak”, but it was the use of the word “betrayal” that sent a chill down the spines of civil servants.  Betrayal is a word heavy with emotion, invoking the idea of treachery. Will civil servants now have to worry that if they resist ill-conceived, immoral or possibly illegal directives, they will be cast as actual traitors?  

Things only seem to be getting worse.  Rumors abound in the bureaucratic community of entire agencies being shuttered (the EPA, the Peace Corps) and civil servants have (jokingly?) started to refer to the Trump appointees stationed in the front offices of various Departments as Commissars.  The recent news of an attempt to fire all US government inspectors general should be alarming to civil servants and citizens alike.

It is going to be a dangerous four years if the White House doesn’t realize that it does not, and will never have, all the answers.  The men and women of the federal civil service don’t have all the answers either, but there is no doubt they have plenty more by dint of experience and sheer volume.  Bureaucrats tolerate a never-ending barrage of gripes, complaints and crazy social media posts and yet they come to work every day in the hopes of making this country better, safer and more prosperous.  And in the end, without them, there is no government.

If the Trump administration continues its attempts to undermine the civil service, Congress needs to push back.  If Congress fails to act, it will be up to the American people to move past the swamp rhetoric and demand that Congress protects the bureaucrats that protect us all.  In the meantime, the White House should remember that the fine federal workers of the DMV (and those all around the country) swore an oath to the Constitution, not to the President.

Image credit: Getty  

About the Author(s)

Alexandra Bell

Senior Policy Director at the Council for a Livable World and Former Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security