Is Appointing People to Lead Agencies They 'Hate' Enough to Rein In Government?

Meg Jacobs teaches history at Columbia and Princeton. In an op-ed for CNN today she analyzes President-elect Donald Trump’s probable cabinet nominees and makes the observation that they all “hate” the agencies Trump would have them lead. Jacobs probably wouldn’t agree, but that’s really more of a feature than a bug. Even so, whether these appointees will have any success de-fanging the regulatory beast remains to be seen. How much can a top administrator really do to change the culture of a federal bureaucracy?

Pruitt epitomizes a more general trend evident in Trump’s picks: the choice to name people who are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run.

That is clear in nominees such as Tom Price, the Georgia congressman who has fought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to head of Health and Human Services; or Betsy DeVos, a committed proponent of defunding public education, as education secretary; or Andrew Puzder, fast-food chain magnate and opponent of raising minimum wages, to lead the Labor Department.

All have established records of fighting to gut regulations and have stated publicly their intentions to thwart what they see as the dangerous and damaging regulatory zeal of their respective agencies.

All of that sounds like a good start, but a good start may be as far as it gets.

Jacobs goes on to compare Trump’s approach to the one taken by President Reagan and ticks off a laundry list of appointees who fit Reagan’s “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” philosophy of governing. Throughout, she seems to operating on the sketchy assumption that federal agencies and regulations generally accomplish their stated purpose and deregulation is something that can only have nefarious motives.

Trump looks like he is taking his cues straight from Reagan’s playbook. And even then some. The president-elect’s appointments are not simply an effort to reward supporters. A master of the media, Trump has managed to make the process riveting to a more general audience, extending the drama and bravado of his campaign.

His transition has been like the equivalent of “Celebrity Apprentice,” with the drama, humiliation and suspense of a season finale. The more outspoken the potential appointments are, the better.

But if Trump is taking his inspiration from Reagan, he should read ahead to the next chapter. In Reagan’s time, this kind of overt hostility led to a countermobilization. Environmental organizations saw their membership numbers skyrocket, these groups filed lawsuits to force compliance, they chased Watt and Gorsuch from office, forcing them to resign amid scandal, and they made their presence known in the following elections.

This “countermobilization” is an interesting point and leads me to question whether appointing skeptical administrators alone can significantly change the nature how things work inside the Beltway.

What can really be accomplished by appointing a non-believer to head up an agency populated with thousands who think what they do is essential to the welfare of the country or even the whole planet? At the EPA for example, I think it would be correct to assume that the majority of people working there believe in what they do. They also have no accountability to the American people. Their job security is virtually 100%. They are managed by political appointees but in some ways they have more power than their leaders because they can wait them out. The appointees come and go but the bureaucracy remains.

For a federal administrator, changing an agency’s culture is less like steering a large ship and more like trying to steer an island. The bureaucracy’s mission is codified in federal law. Unless that changes, I’m afraid any changes at these regulatory agencies will only be superficial. I’m not confident that congressional Republicans (or even a President Trump) will take the actions necessary for real change.

For conservative talk show hosts and other people who watch politics like it’s a sporting event, Trump’s appointments are opportunities to cheer for points being scored and watching left wing pundits react is good for ratings and a moment of schadenfreude. Still, whether any of it amounts to more than a temporary setback to the growing behemoth in Washington, DC remains doubtful.