A Modest Proposal

(It occurs to me that some readers -- particularly younger ones who have studied English-language writers only since the banishment of Dead White Males from the university curriculum -- may be unfamiliar with the reference in the title to the classic 1729 essay by Jonathan Swift.  If you haven't read it, here is a link.  As you will see, my proposal is considerably more modest.)

I will not be the first to point out the clear signal sent by President-elect Trump with many of his cabinet appointments of an intent to reverse major policies of the Obama administration in many areas.  To consider just a few examples:

  •  Department of Education.  Its mission under Obama (and to be fair, under prior Presidents as well) has been to use the piles of free federal money to prop up overpriced and ineffective unionized government schools so that the unions can maximize their revenue, and any and all reforms can be avoided.  Trump nominee Betsy DeVos is a leader in advocating for charter schools and school choice, and is a bete noire of the teachers' unions.
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Its mission under Obama (and again, also under prior Presidents) has been to provide subsidized apartments to people deemed to be poor, and thereby keep those people trapped in poverty and dependency for their entire lives.  Trump nominee Ben Carson has been a leading advocate for reducing dependency on the government among poor people, and particularly among blacks.
  • Department of Energy and EPA.  Their mission under Obama has been supporting and funding global warming alarmism, subsidizing uneconomic intermittent energy sources, and trying to put energy from fossil fuels out of business.  Energy Secretary-designate Rick Perry actually advocated eliminating the Department of Energy during his own presidential campaign.  EPA Administrator-designate Scott Pruitt has spent years initiating lawsuits against EPA seeking to strike down some of its major regulations.

So, when the new guys at the top come in, can they just turn these agencies around and start with new policies?  If you read the Constitution, the answer would seem to be, of course they can!  (Article II, Section 1: "The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.")  But realists will recognize that there are only a handful of political appointees at the top of each department or agency, while the thousands of "permanent" or "career" employees are protected against firing by civil service laws.  And somehow these people think that, while the political appointees come and go, the career employees are the ones who really run the place.

How bad will be the resistance to change?  We got a preliminary indication a couple of days ago after the Trump "landing team" for the Energy Department sent a 74-part informational questionnaire to the department.  One of the areas of inquiry was a request for the names of department staffers who had worked on "climate change" programs.  Does that request seem reasonable to you?  It did not seem reasonable to the current DOE or its staffers.  They have "rejected" these requests for information.  From The Hill on December 13:

The Department of Energy said Tuesday it will reject the request by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team to name staffers who worked on climate change programs.  Energy spokesman Eben Burnhan-Snyder said the agency received “significant feedback” from workers regarding a questionnaire from the transition team that leaked last week.  “Some of the questions asked left many in our workforce unsettled,” Snyder said.

Well, I guess that's how it works in the Federal Government:  If the requests of your new boss make you "unsettled," you just "reject" them.  And if that's how they react to a simple request for information as to who is doing what, imagine how they are going to react when they actually get an assignment to do something that runs counter to what they think should be done! 

The article in The Hill goes on to quote from the employees' union boss, articulating the view that there is nothing political about this, and the staffers are just neutral, a-political experts trying to go about their jobs:

“My members are upset and have questions about what this means. These are all civil servants who do their jobs,” Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement.  “They have no wish to be caught up in political winds — they are nonpartisan employees — scientists, engineers, statisticians, economists and financial experts — who were hired for their knowledge and they bring their talent and experience to the job every day,” he said, adding that the union “will do all it can to ensure that merit system rules are followed.”

Actually, no.  There is absolutely nothing "nonpartisan" about this.  The Department of Energy is substantially if not entirely engaged in carrying out policies that are favored by Democrats and opposed by Republicans -- policies like promoting and subsidizing wind and solar energy and hamstringing and restricting fossil fuels.  Do you think that even the Energy Information Agency is nonpartisan?  Don't be ridiculous.  Their "levelized cost of energy" reports are carefully engineered to defraud the American people into supporting "renewable" energy by downplaying the real costs of wind and solar energy by a factor of five or ten or more.  The same overt or covert partisanship is equally if not more true at Education, HUD, EPA, and, for that matter, throughout the government.  

How bad is the partisanship in the government?  Surely, you say, there must be at least a few Republicans in the government who can be counted on to keep things fair!  If you think that, you are deluding yourself.  Analyze the election results from the District of Columbia, and you come away realizing that virtually every single person who works for the federal government is a Democrat.

Here are the presidential results from the District of Columbia.  Hillary Clinton got 90.9% of the votes, a percentage far higher than her percent in any of the fifty states.  (Her highest percentage in any of the states was in Hawaii at 62.3%.)  Donald Trump and Gary Johnson between them won just 5.7% of the votes in D.C., about 17,600 votes in total.  But think about this:  Washington has a substantial Republican establishment.  The RNC is headquartered in DC.  The Republicans held substantial majorities in both the House and Senate before the recent election, and the Republican members of Congress plus their committees had something in the range of 4000 staffers based in the District.  And those people have families.  And there is a substantial group of Republican, conservative and libertarian think tanks and policy organizations based in D.C. -- as examples, consider the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Federalist Society, and so forth.  And their staffers also have families.  Add up all the professional and paid Republican and conservative-side people in Washington and their families, and you have accounted for literally every Republican vote in the District.  The number of Republicans actually working in the government has to be so small that you will need a microscope to find them.

And yes, it is absolutely reasonable to expect that every single one of the government employees regards Trump and his people as illegitimate interlopers, and those employees will do everything in their power to hinder and obstruct any agenda of reform.

So, what to do about it?  The obvious first answer is, fire these people and hire new ones who will do your bidding.  Unfortunately, that is likely to be a poor answer.  The so-called "civil service" protections for career federal employees go back to the 1880s.  Do they violate the constitutional provision that vests all executive authority in the President?  I would say they do, but you could litigate that issue for the entire next four years without getting any definitive result and without getting rid of a single person.  You might even lose outright.

So here's the modest proposal: If the government cannot fire these people, then it can assign them to other tasks in other places.  By fortuitous coincidence, the recent several years have seen downsizing in two sectors known for having very large buildings, many of them located in remote and out-of-the-way areas.  Those two sectors are manufacturing and retail.  Places like rural Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Arkansas, and upstate New York -- not to mention northern Maine, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and even Alaska -- are littered with abandoned K-Marts, JC Penney's and Sears stores, as well as abandoned factories of all sorts.  These buildings can be leased for a song.  Hundreds of federal employees can be assigned to each such location.

Send each such employee a memo:  "Starting Monday morning at 9 AM, your job will be located at the former Sears Hometown store, 2308 11th Avenue West, Williston, North Dakota.  If you report for work, you will await such assignments as may be given to you at that location.  If you do not show up, your pay will be continued until your unused vacation and sick leave are exhausted, and then your pay will stop."

Inside the former Sears or K-Mart, there can be row upon row of hundreds of desks and chairs.  But I highly recommend that these employees not be provided with any computer or cell phone at taxpayer expense.  Why waste the money?  They can communicate with headquarters in Washington by U.S. mail.  It's not like they are doing anything productive.

Something tells me that the incoming Trump team will stop short of adopting my proposal.  But they should adopt it.  For the next four years, essentially every federal employee in Washington is going to be conducting an unrelenting guerilla campaign to undermine everything the administration wants to do.  If the administration only pushes back a little, it will be steamrolled by the permanent government Blob.  Time to act decisively!  If anyone can do that, it is Trump.

UPDATE, December 16:  The normally sensible Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View comments on the Trump transition team questionnaire to the Department of Energy (asking for names of DOE employees working on "climate change" matters) as follows:

[The Department of Energy] should not comply with this request unless some law requires it. This request reeks of witch-hunting people because they might have views on climate change that our president-elect, or someone on his staff, dislike. That is no way to run an organization, or a nation.

What?  The incoming administration has an absolute right to find out who is working on what, and to re-direct people from working on Project A to Project B.  Career employees have no "right" to continue to spend taxpayer resources on projects that the newly elected representatives of the people do not want done.  How is this a "witch hunt"?  If the new people do not find out who is working on Project A, and stop that work, and direct the effort over to Project B, then they are not doing their job.