Donald Trump Is Emptying Out the Government
The administration is leaving key positions vacant
by ANDREW DOBBS
On March 13, 2017, Pres. Donald Trump issued an executive order that directs all federal executive agencies to participate in a “comprehensive plan for reorganizing the executive branch.”
Over the next six months, each agency will look for ways to destroy themselves and strip away their operations — including an explicit demand that they seek opportunities for turning government operations over to “the private sector through free enterprise.”
This is a development we actually predicted even before Trump’s inauguration.
On Jan. 11, 2017, in our piece “First, Destroy the Federal Workforce — Then Rule Like an Autocrat,” pointed out that governments can pass laws, and they are dependent on and exposed to the masses in a variety of ways, but the state is a material thing, made of flesh, blood, steel, concrete and other things you can stub your toe on.
The public can want or hope for all kinds of stuff, the laws can say all kinds of things,but ultimately the government is the bureaucracy and the material resources — physical, human, financial, etc. — available to it.
If Trump can make the bureaucracy do what he wants it to do, he has individual control of the state — the formal definition of an autocrat.
With this executive order, Trump has begun this process of consolidation of autocratic control over the federal bureaucracy. In the context of an imperial state this will grant him extraordinary personal power.
The process began with strategic appointments to each of these agencies. His cabinet-level appointments garnered widespread contempt for hating the very agencies and missions they were now in charge of. Much less reported, however, is that In a number of key instances Trump has held off on appointing anybody altogether.
Most notable in this regard is his total disregard for the State Department — almost none of the key Senate-approved positions have been filled there. He even denied Secretary Wayne Tracker … er, Rex Tillerson … his first choice of deputy secretary — the neoconservative warmonger Elliott Abrams — and has not appointed anybody else to this crucial role.
In fact, he hasn’t appointed a single deputy director or secretary of any agency that’s actually been confirmed by the Senate. He’s only nominated four deputy directors of any sort, skipping not only the State Department deputy, but also the deputy director of national intelligence and the deputy secretary of the treasury, among many others.
The only cabinet-level department with an active, Senate-confirmed deputy is the Department of Defense. Who was actually appointed by Pres. Barack Obama.
This is a big deal. Cabinet secretaries are high-profile political positions, spending a great deal of time in public engagements and setting high level policies. Deputy directors and secretaries are most often the ones actually running the day-to-day operations of these agencies, implementing the policies developed by their bosses.
Trump has left these jobs vacant primarily because he’s incompetent and doesn’t give a shit. He’s an autocrat without a cause. The job of president is a part-time gig for him and more of a money-making venture and perverse ego trip than anything else. He’s fine with letting his parasitic underlings run the show.
They do have an agenda, however, an ideological and practical program of dismantling the liberal state and transferring its resources to the hands of the imperial financial elite.
Their strategy for pulling this off is genius. They know that leaving the top managerial posts in an institution vacant puts the agency into a sort of holding pattern, not doing much at all but awaiting instructions. Into that void they have skipped over the top levels of the agencies to hire instead second-tier figures that the nonprofit journalism project Pro Publica calls a “beachhead” into the federal government.
These folks are being hired into non-political positions such as “special advisors” and “staff assistants” not subject to Senate approval. They have backgrounds in a few different, seemingly conflicting areas. A number of them are former conspiracy theorists, Breitbart columnists and propagandists for a variety of other far-right outlets.
Others are industry lobbyists, usually from the very industries that they are now supposed to be regulating, and others are Trump campaign and right-wing political veterans.
“Much about the role of the beachhead teams at various federal agencies is unclear,” Pro Publica reported. “But close observers of the early weeks of the Trump administration believe they have taken on considerable influence in the absence of high-level political appointees.”
Now Bannon and company are delivering the coup de grace with Monday’s executive order.
Without oversight from deputy director-level management the ideologically driven and self-interested beachhead can guide the process towards the goal of a dismantled liberal state under the leadership of cabinet-level appointments that either disdain the agencies altogether or have no idea what the fuck they’re doing. Looking at you, Secretary Ben Carson.
There is lots of smart liberal commentary clucking at all of this, quick to remind everybody that Congress will get the final say on these agency-generated plans. This is naive and completely disconnected from the new reality at hand.
First things first, the very Congress that just proposed eliminating health coverage for 24 million people probably won’t mind enacting the cuts with little to no debate.
Now, it’s true that even Right wing members of Congress have special interest motivations for keeping federal bureaucracies in place. They have controlled the federal budget before and never swung the axe like we are now anticipating. Nonetheless the fact right now is that the executive branch is powerful enough to probably disregard Congress altogether in this process.
Let’s count the ways. First, the agencies could simply decline to fill the positions that they want to eliminate but which Congress continues to authorize. It may exist on paper, but if no real human being serves in the position it is the same as eliminating it.
If an agency comes back the next year with unspent funds because it never paid those positions, then congressional appropriators are going to have a Hell of a time not just shifting that money to something else. One year of flipping off Congress could be enough to kill the position for real.
Next, and to this end, remember that Congress re-authorized the Holman Rule this year, a 19th-century legislative tactic that allows lawmakers to reduce a federal position’s salary to one dollar.
So even if they have political reasons for not actually erasing a position, but the executive branch isn’t going to fill it and they would rather move its appropriation to another purpose they could just Holman-ize the position and look like they are serving their constituents while actually fucking up the federal government. This is the sort of thing they excel at.
Third, when it comes to mandated reports, oversight or programs the agency can often just delay them indefinitely so as to effectively refuse to carry them out. There are innumerable means to carry out these sorts of postponements — shifting staffers into and out of jobs and so restarting processes, referring them to different departments, just quietly missing deadlines and hoping nobody notices, requests for information from other agencies that then never provide the data and on and on and on.
Anyone who has ever been to a DMV or post office knows that there is nothing the government does like delay.
Finally even if Congress funds a position and compels them to actually deliver something the executive can create so many problems for them and fuck things up so badly that the resulting product is completely useless or even harmful to the ends they intended.
Congress will have a choice between getting rid of the thing the executive didn’t want in the first place or tolerating outcomes counterproductive to lawmakers’ intentions.
The basic point here is that Congress can’t make the executive branch do anything. If the executive doesn’t want to spend the money Congress budgets and they ignore the paper the law is written on there is very little Congress can do. Citizens and states can sue in the courts — and will, for sure — but even if they win that’s when the agencies can deploy all their goof-off tactics.
Whatever these Nazis, crooks, crackpots and greedy little puissants come up with under this executive order is very likely to go into effect one way or the other.
All of this is intentional and absolutely necessary for the normal operation of our capitalist economy. Economist Michael Roberts provides context in his 2016 book The Long Depression.
“The post-slump austerity policies of most governments are not insane, as Keynesians think,” Roberts wrote. “These policies follow from the need to drive down costs, particularly wage costs, but also taxation and interest costs, and the need to weaken the labor movement so that profits can be raised.
“It is a perfectly rational policy from the point of view of capital, which is why Keynesian policies were never introduced to any degree in the 1930s,” Roberts continued. “Capitalism came out of that Great Depression only when profitability rose and that was when the United States went into a war economy mode, controlling wages and spending and driving up profits for arms manufacturers and others in the war effort. Capitalism needed war, not Keynesian policies.”
Reducing taxes, cutting deficits and thus holding down interest rates, slowing overall economic growth to limit inflation and suppress employment so that workers are weaker and wages lowered — all of this is necessary to try and boost profits. The problem for the system is that these policies are politically unpopular — so unpopular that they are in many cases the precise opposite of what Trump said he would do in the campaign.
The solution — keep capitalism, kill liberalism. Use demagoguery and extremism to break normal political discourse, end any sort of public accountability to the press or respect for public information, consolidate executive power in the hands of a ruling political cabal tied to these ideas, dismantle the liberal state and turn it over to those extreme ideologues and industrial powers, convert public resources into private, stoke public fears of scapegoats and — as Roberts hints — start a big fucking war.
This executive order is a step in this process, with only one box still unchecked … for now.
Our solution must be to continue fighting in every way possible. On the one hand, this can mean a formal policy-based strategy of fighting for the agencies and programs the Trump state will propose eliminating. This is where the Indivisible groups might be very useful, in forcing Congress to show some backbone and seeing just how hard they might end up fighting for their alleged powers.
But liberalism’s death isn’t a matter of a single executive order or even the whole Trump election. It’s a global phenomenon — we can see it The Philippines’ Duterte, India’s Modi, the United Kingdom’s Brexit, the coup in Brazil, the South Korean presidential crisis and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France.
Liberal political tactics are out of place, potentially valuable to stall things out a bit but ultimately doomed. We have to organize new political institutions that actually resist, that is to say they materially disrupt the ability of the ruling order to operate and reproduce itself. This will mean breaking laws — and worse.
The alternative is capitulating to a childish autocrat and his corrupt, fascist minions. The alternative is death for everything.
We have six months until the reports come down. We’ll have plenty to do in the meantime, but let’s prepare nonetheless and, as always, stay defiant.
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