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Trump Is Captaining A Federal Ghost Ship–But Is That Good News Or Bad News? (Forbes.com) May 26, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

Four months into the new Trump administration, I decided to pick one department I know reasonably well and see what kind of people are being appointed to senior staff positions at the US Department of Education:  deputy secretary, undersecretary and assistant secretaries.  We know that Secretary Betsy DeVos stands for charter schools and choice, but sometimes it’s useful to look a level deeper and see what kind of leaders will be overseeing policy and implementation closer to the trenches.

What I learned was truly surprising and I am still not sure what to make of it.  Essentially no one has been appointed to fill any of those positions— deputy secretary, undersecretary, and all 11 assistant secretary jobs have the same listing:  “vacant.”  If the lights are on, nobody is home.  What can I tell about the quality and direction of the senior staff at the Department of Education?  Absolutely nothing.

I thought perhaps this was an aberration.  With Secretary DeVos coming from outside the professional education field, maybe she needs more time than other cabinet secretaries who can hit the ground running.  But then came another surprise:  this same pattern stretches across federal departments.  Four months in, we have a cabinet, but little or no senior staff.    In fact, Trump has not even named a permanent director of the federal Office of Personnel Management to oversee the staffing process.

 The Presidential Transition Tracker (yes, there is such a thing) tells us that of 559 senior leadership positions in the executive branch requiring Senate confirmation, there has been no nominee for 444 of them, or roughly 80%.  And only 36 have been confirmed.  No other president in the last 30 years had fewer than 60 nominations confirmed by this point in his term and the median of those five presidents is 94.  Yes, Senate confirmations are taking somewhat longer, but the real story is the low number of nominations.


But the plot thickens as we look for motives and effects.  When I mentioned this to a conservative scholar friend, he responded, “That’s the best thing Trump has done so far,” leaving the federal bureaucracy relatively leaderless.  I suppose this explanation takes a page from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address when he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”  If we leave the government bereft of staff leadership, it can do less harm, I suppose.  Maybe this is part of draining the swamp.

Trump must recognize, however, that though he has no senior staff, he still has a bureaucracy grinding out regulations and policies without his political leadership in place.  If he wants to leave federal agencies drifting, the problem is that they will continue to drift left.  The tendency of regulators is to regulate and the agencies are full of Obama-era people.  So this strategy of leaving the leadership positions empty is more likely to hurt the Trump agenda than to help.

Trump has said a number of times that the constituency he wants to help as president is the “forgotten men and women.”  Who are those people?  President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to help his “forgotten man,” someone Roosevelt thought needed government protection from the vagaries of free markets and the greed of economic royalists.  Trump’s forgotten men and women are being ignored and harmed by the government itself.  They pay taxes but don’t get what they want:  good schools, communities without violence, roads without potholes.  Veterans aren’t receiving decent medical care.   Unfortunately, none of those things will be fixed without Trump’s own appointees installed in the federal bureaucracy.

Whatever his motive, Trump is making a mistake by not gaining control of the vast federal bureaucracy through the appointment process.  The key to effective leadership is picking good people and supporting them.  That needs to happen in Washington very soon.  Without that, no swamps will be drained and no forgotten men and women will be served.

To view the column at Forbes.com:


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