Shadow Government

Making American Bureaucracy Terrible Again

The Trump administration's petty corruption will have a clear legacy: more red tape for years to come.

HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the White House, on January 12, 2018 in Washington, DC.
 (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the White House, on January 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s $31,000 (and aesthetically questionable!) dining set. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin’s Wimbledon tickets for himself and his wife. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first-class tickets to protect his hurt feelings on short flights. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of expensive taxpayer-funded private and military aircraft for what appears to be numerous unnecessary or private trips. As the list of abuses of public trust and resources by Trump’s cabinet secretaries continues to lengthen, there is a broader point that needs to be made: This is what bureaucracy looks like. These are the kinds of actions that produce the kind of bureaucracy we scorn.

Attacking bureaucracy is a favorite stalking horse of the anti-government political right. To be clear, I believe our federal bureaucracy is a huge national asset, and even something that makes the United States exceptional. My experience working within the bureaucracy — first, as a deputy assistant secretary of state, then as a U.S. ambassador — left me with huge respect for the thousands of fellow Americans who work hard on our behalf every day and who are motivated by neither fame nor fortune but rather an earnest commitment to the spirit of public service. Other countries seek to emulate our success in this regard.

But for those who like to use bureaucracy as a dirty word, it is both a “what” and a “how.”

The “what” is used when referring to the people who make up the institutions and agencies of government. Many on the right would like to see a government so small as to be ineffective (witness the Trump administration’s attack on the State Department, or the irresponsible tax bill pushed through by the Republican Party last year that was intended to create and will inevitably lead to a crisis in funding critical functions of the federal government). The right also frequently impugns, shamefully, the patriotism and work ethic of civil servants who spend their careers working to advance the mission of government institutions under leadership from both parties.

It is a proper topic of our political debate to discuss what functions the government needs to perform, and what resources it needs to perform it, in order to accomplish objectives in the public interest. No reasonable person thinks government should be bigger than it needs to be. But too often these days we hear arguments that are not about objectives and means (or grounded in fact), but rather are broadsides against government as such. These only contribute to the cynicism that infects our politics. Of course, when you have leaders of federal agencies who blatantly abuse public trust, that contributes to the objective of getting more people to dislike the government in general. Their unethical behavior serves their personal interests and their political objectives.

The second meaning of bureaucracy is the “how” — the way that government works, which they see as inefficient and impeded by “red tape.” Sometimes these attacks are merely cover for attempts to undermine laudable public functions, such as the protection of individuals from discrimination or of public lands from private actors. But anyone who has worked in the government knows that there are also times when the “how” of bureaucracy does get in the way of accomplishing the mission. Petty and onerous rules about process end up taking up time and resources, and make it harder to get things done. Many outside government like to mock the efficiency of government agencies; they make jokes about the number of forms or signatures needed, the number of people who have to approve something and the rigid commitment to following established processes. They have a point. There were plenty of times when I thought “Gosh, this is unnecessarily tedious,” whether I was filing employee reviews or making travel reservations.

But here’s the rub: Pretty much every annoying process or apparently “stupid” rule arose not because bureaucrats love rules, but because some jerk exercised bad judgment and did something unethical or foolish. Wrongdoing and bad decision-making by those working for the government is a principal source of the kinds of restrictions that those who attack the bureaucracy like to hold up as examples of bureaucratic inefficiency.

Of course, Democrats have made mistakes, too. (I cringed when I read the report in the Washington Post about the Obama undersecretary of commerce who had been staying in fancy hotels above the allowed rate and complaining about the quality of his cocktails. “And a new set of rules will be born,” I thought to myself.) But the over-the-top widespread unethical behavior and poor judgment of Trump’s cabinet is a double concern. First of all, it does tremendous damage to people’s trust in government. Second, leadership comes from the top, and if this is how cabinet secretaries are behaving, we can reasonably assume that there is similar moral rot at lower levels of political appointees who work for them. The behavior of the dirty half-dozen cabinet secretaries (or more) will likely lead, ultimately, to a proliferation of new rules and regulations governing the way that government employees work. These rules will slow down the decent people who do exercise good judgment in their work for the federal government.

Moreover, it will probably make it more difficult for senior officials in the future to do important work for the American people. Future increases of restrictions on military aircraft use, for example, will make it harder for senior diplomats to get to remote places to defuse potential conflicts. There are times when exceptions to what is generally good practice are warranted and in the interest of taxpayers — but those exceptions will be more difficult because of the unethical behavior of Trump’s team.

This is what bureaucracy looks like: Flagrant violations of norms inevitably lead to the conclusion that behavior must be governed by rules, regulations, and laws. And it is just one example of the many ways in which our agencies and institutions are adapting to an administration that has an enormous number of departures from ethical and principled conduct. The adaptations may be justified in response to the particular wrongs or threats, but they will be with us after this administration is gone and will have contributed to making government less efficient.

Daniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013. Baer was an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group. @danbbaer

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