For most Americans government bureaucracy is a joke. Literally. Here’s an example: How many bureaucrats does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to screw it in, one to screw it up. There’s plenty more where that came from. Bureaucrats are good at fixing blame, bad at fixing problems. Bureaucrats never stop a buck here. Pass a buck, sure. Spend a buck, definitely. Stop the buck, not so much.
I know, I know, the japery isn’t exactly hitting Dave Chappelle or Jim Carey levels of hilarity in the old chortle department. But consider the material I’m working with here. And if jokes about the bureaucracy don’t make you laugh, I don’t mind. Because what’s happening at and to the executive branch agencies of the federal government these days just isn’t funny. Through a mixture of neglect, incompetence and premeditated demolition, the operational capabilities of a range of federal bureaucracies are being systematically degraded.
Plenty of the president’s supporters–and, I’m guessing even some of his detractors–are cheering on this dismantling. Everyone knows a government bureaucracy is a system designed to allow twelve men to do the work of one (bada-bing). Everyone knows bureaucracy is just cease on the wheels of progress (bada-boom). Maybe so. But everyone is dead wrong.
Let’s just take one example of a bureaucracy that’s suffering under the Trump administration, the Department of State, the executive branch agency dedicated to foreign policy. Managing foreign affairs has always been considered an important and central responsibility of the federal government. The Department of Foreign Affairs–which later became the State Department–was created by an act of Congress in 1789, the first federal bureaucracy ever brought to life under the Constitution. There’s a reason for this primacy–since the founding of the Republic foreign relations have been considered a central responsibility of the federal government, and wise management of that portfolio requires diplomatic expertise.
Most people see the sense in that. Foreign affairs are important to any nation state, or at least any nation state that wants to sell goods in foreign markets, buy stuff from foreign markets, protect its citizens when they travel abroad, and prefers to make jaw-jaw before war-war. For an economic, military and cultural juggernaut like the United States such functions are critical. Having an agency stuffed with experts on foreign governments and how they operate comes in mighty handy if you want to stop them from lobbing a nuke your way, or prevent them from otherwise being an irritant or nuisance to the national interest. Shoot, it’s pretty important if all you want to do is sell furriners more corn than the contents of a Hee Haw episode.
If that agency isn’t up to par personnel-wise, it’s hard to do that stuff, or at least do it competently. And the State Department these days is the opposite of stuffed. There are 72 appointed positions in State that the Trump administration has yet to bother submitting a nominee for. And we’re not talking coffee boy and copy gopher sort of jobs. The president has yet to nominate anyone for four of the six undersecretary positions (you can find a running tally of Trump administration nominations here ). State Department careerists have been heading for the exits for six months, essentially with Trumpanistas smirking, “don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.”
While foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum have responded with alarm to the hollowing out of the agency, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it’s all just so much pointy-headed fuss and feathers. There’s no need to worry about State being undermanned because, and I’m not making this up, the United States doesn’t need so many diplomats because world crises and conflicts are getting resolved. Uh-huh. I guess we don’t need an ambassador to South Korea (no one nominated) or a special envoy to North Korea (ditto) because, well, nothing going on in that neighborhood. We haven’t got a representative to the European Union either, but what the heck, everything looks tickety-boo over there and it’s not like they’re important to US interests.
President Trump has given assurances that there’s no cause for disquiet or concern. Sure, the government of the United States is increasingly managing its foreign relations without experts who know the language, culture, politics and modus operandi of allies and opponents. But who needs ‘em. As Trump puts it, “I am the only one that matters.” That news was received by two pops. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping popping a cork. Everyone else popping Prozac.
The erosion of expertise, professionalism and technical competence would be bad enough if it were limited to the State Department. But it’s not. It is a general, systematic trend across the federal bureaucracy. Education, Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Agriculture–whole swaths of the federal government are in various stages of being hollowed out and actively undermined by the people appointed to lead them. These efforts may very well turn the United States government into a joke. But it’s really not that funny.