Federal Employees News Digest

Expert: Normalcy returning to the civil service, slowly

Six months into the current administration, to many there’s just one key question about our government—something asked in earnest by political scientists, public administrators and the public: Are we beginning to see a return to “normal” in government, in agencies and the civil service—and, for that matter, in our politics? “Normal” meaning in contrast to the tumult and frequent chaos of the Trump era? The question is a fair one: The last administration’s leaders came into government promising to slam the civil service as an unresponsive “deep state,” and in fact they did a fair bit to tear up the status quo—demoralizing many to leave or retire early, and engineering more direct White House power over normally compartmentalized, policy-driven parts of the civil service—for example, non-political professionalized parts of the Department of Justice, the State Department and EPA. All contrary to “normal” as the public has known it. From the Civil Service Act of 1883, through the Hatch Act of 1939 and beyond, federal laws and regulations had pushed the opposite way—to remove politics and direct White House politics, especially from the scientific and law enforcement parts of the civil service. At a minimum, as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board termed it, the last administration was “raucus”. So now—under a milder-talking President Biden—reports proliferate with titles like “Beyond Trump: Six things that could signal a return to normalcy” (Brookings) and “How the promise of normalcy won the 1920 election,” (the New Yorker, comparing our “return to normalcy” now to one a century ago). This week in FEND, Nathan Abse focuses on the issue, in an interview with Kenneth Warren, a professor of political science—and expert on public administration and the history of the U.S. government—at Saint Louis University in Missouri. 
Q&A with Kenneth Warren 

Prof. Warren, it’s “report card” time: Can you tell our fed-heavy readership if you think President Biden, as promised, is restoring “normalcy” to federal agencies and the civil service? 

Warren: Yes, I do. I think he is restoring some. But it’s going to be a very slow process. 

Let’s look at some prominent departments—by all accounts, shaken in recent years: Justice, whose A.G. constrained the department, hugely, to protect the president from investigations? 

Warren: Yes, I will say this: Restoring the DOJ to a “normal” status is going to take a long time, to get back to greater normality. I want to add that this applies to another important department: State. Why these two departments? Because, in big ways, they have been gutted. A lot of good people left, retired early or resigned. Honorable people. People who, whatever their political leanings, could not tolerate chaos and what they saw as bad management and ideological taint openly being directed from the top and the White House. It affected day-to-day operations. It pushed people who didn’t want any part in it to leave. It discouraged recruitment of less political types from joining. Unfortunately, it’s left a huge void, of people and of spirit. That’s true at Justice and at State. Both problems. 

What are necessary steps to bringing back “normalcy”—to heal spirits and fill some positions?  

Warren: Some argue, and I agree, you’d have to really open the files in the departments and examine what’s been going on. You need to air all the [politicizing] and all the damage done during the previous administration. Because it was happening. They were open about it—saying to the media and in court filings it was the president’s right to reach down in departments and control things, even things usually walled off from politics. But there’s a huge impediment to examining the files—as well as an argument against even trying to do it. And it’s that, especially now, these departments don’t have a workforce adequate to the task. That’s a big part of why repairing the civil service will take a long time. 

Can you give our readers an example of damaged civil service, and abused agencies? 

Warren: Yes. For example, in recent months it’s been widely reported that the last administration’s DOJ was secretly investigating reporters. It brings to mind, how many other “not normal” things were going on, just at DOJ alone? There might be thousands and thousands of cases of abuses like this, frankly. There are all kinds of things we know a little about, but there will be many we won’t know. There are still people at DOJ, some hired by the last administration, who are ideological. They won’t tell us about such things, not without an investigation. And as I said, DOJ like many others just doesn’t have the workforce or other resources to investigate this stuff right now. It’s a problem. 

Maybe the new administration is not digging, but they’ve moved toward “normalcy”—less politicized leaders at State and Justice, right? Meaning, few “less government” types—like Tillerson, Pompeo, Barr; instead, pro-civil service types like Blinken and Garland, right? 

Warren: Yes, I think that’s about right. So, at the top some real normalcy has come back. I think the ideology against civil servants—as being somehow bad or wasteful—that’s gone now at the top, at many departments. That means we’re back to what we had before the last administration: As in, yes, the president sets an agenda, but not one where politics interferes with everything at DOJ or at State. Put simply, now the State Department is back to being run more like the State Department should be run, and the Department of Justice is being run more like the Department of Justice should be run. As they were before, mostly, for decades. Most important, I’d add, things are normal in that these departments appear to be back to honoring the rule of law. They got away from that for a time, clearly at DOJ and others, under the last administration. But, to get really “normal”, really repaired and vacancies well-filled, it will take a long time. 

You’ve commented on DOJ and State—what about other agencies that got too politicized?

Warren: The Environmental Protection Agency, like State and DOJ, was gutted and remains gutted. There are far more vacancies than “normal.” The department was kept from doing its work, and from operating under the law properly. But let me make a wider point: Even now, even though the White House has changed hands, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), still has great power in the Senate, and openly says he’ll try to prevent what I and other [legal scholars and political scientists] might see as “normal,” for as long as possible. He supported what the last administration did to agencies, in effect. He’s not the only lawmaker or political leader still speaking and acting in this way. So, there’s that political problem [for the civil service]. So, again, it looks like it will be hard to achieve normality. After what’s happened, it would take any administration at least a couple years to start to get back to what I’d call real normality. 

What are the implications of this? 

Warren: Well, one major effect is a negative effect of uncertainty for many federal employees, about their work and its effectiveness, and on their morale and their departments and their functioning. Another major negative effect is that there is a lot of worry outside the government, and abroad, about the United States, and the normality people came to expect from our government and its functioning. Biden has promised to pursue normality, but leaders are asking, even if he achieves some of it, frankly, for how long will that last? This is part of why, in various ways, now we remain so unstable. President Biden is going to have a hard time getting back to executive branch normality that that would be helpful to the functioning of our government. 

For a well-functioning, normal civil service, long-term we may need more normal politics. Do you expect shrill political conflict to continue or a return to middle ground in politics? 

Warren: It’s a good question. I don’t see signs of a return to "normal" politics. But we don’t know yet. As to the civil service and agencies, certainly, yes—in the near-term, we seem to be returning to some normality. 

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