Don’t Underestimate the Role of Civil Servants in Defending Democracy

By Emily Bilbao and Erik Brine, Truman Defense Council Member

The vile actions of seditionists attacking our nation’s Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power during the counting of Electoral College votes will forever live in infamy. It is clear that some Republican lawmakers bear responsibility for fomenting this violence, and that years of vilifying government contributed to the hate on display. No political or bureaucratic act compares to a violent coup attempt, however, as former federal civil servants, we cannot help but reflect on the quieter attempts during the Trump era aimed at disrupting our democratic norms, processes, and traditions. In fact, until January 6th we were both preoccupied by one such effort aimed at obstructing the transition of power unfolding at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) within the White House and what it reveals about those worthy of serving as stewards of our democracy.

Every four years, following the Republican and Democratic conventions and the selections of each party’s nominee, OMB quietly begins the informal process of laying the necessary groundwork for a potential transition of power. The largest office of career, apolitical policy professionals within the Executive Offices of the President, OMB not only develops the President’s Budget, but also helps coordinate the Executive Branch and every four or eight years, helps execute the continuity of government. Traditionally, this is an organization staffed with experienced policy experts, skilled budget specialists, and quiet apolitical warriors who are happy to remain out of the press, faceless, and nameless in an organization few Americans even know exist. Over the course of the Trump Administration that unfortunately changed.

As former OMB career officials, we are trained not only to pay attention to the news but to separate the wheat from the chaff. We are required to know how government works, and how to connect a news headline or campaign promise to actual government action on behalf of taxpayers. We often hear friends and family lament that it’s hard to keep track of Washington’s dysfunction or understand what government actually does for them, but the December 31, 2020 announcement from then OMB Director, Russ Vought, that the agency was keeping career staff from working on the Biden administration’s first Budget was an astonishing attempt to hamper the transition of power that the American people ought to understand.

The Biden team has not been deterred. Its capacity to hit the ground running amidst multiple crises is a testament to its experience and appreciation for the minutiae of government. After enjoying a deep sigh of relief, let’s also take stock of how this dysfunctional handoff departed from those in previous years. This will help us better defend our democratic institutions in the future and value those who do this work every day.

In the Fall of 2016 — as in every other cycle — once nominees were selected, OMB staffers began to cull through the promises made by each campaign so the Executive Branch would be ready to support the new Administration, whichever it may be, and to execute its intent immediately following inauguration. This is particularly important because the President is expected to send a Budget to Congress on the first Monday of February. This only gives the new President about two weeks to make real change in the first year of an Administration through budgetary measures.

We know the pressures and power of a transition. We were honored to work as career staff in OMB’s National Security Program and dutifully prepared the incoming Trump administration, and specifically, Director Vought who was then serving as head of the so-called “Landing Team” at OMB. This was all to prepare the Trump administration’s first Budget, an Administration’s first comprehensive, consolidated policy proposal for Congress and the American people, which forces a new Administration to grapple with immediate challenges while preparing sustainable programming. This is precisely what we were tasked with doing for Director Vought personally and his colleagues in 2017, because that is what the country demanded of us in that moment.

It is worth reflecting on why we were proud to do this work in 2017, in particular. It was an unexpected election result that positioned U.S. policy to swing dramatically in a different direction. This is what the election result demanded. Our job was to ensure that the institutions of government were ready to implement the desired outcome. At a moment of dramatic political change, career officials were motivated to ensure safety, security, stability, and continued service to taxpayers while aligning policies to their election preference. This is what democracy demands. Any effort to foil this sacred handoff — whether through rioting or bureaucratic maneuvering — is an assault on the very democracy we all cherish.

As we celebrate the return to normalcy, and after the events of January 6, this example may seem insignificant, but defending democracy requires constant attention and action on all fronts. It also requires truthful deliberation about violations of laws and norms. We must all be vocal, vigilant, and proactive in service of our democracy, and we are grateful for all those civil servants who have done just that with little recognition during the Trump era. The survival of our democracy will owe them a debt of gratitude and we owe them every effort to restore the critical institutions, like OMB, that their personal sacrifices have saved over these last four years.

Emily Bilbao served as a Program Examiner in the International Affairs Division from 2014 through 2018

Erik Brine served as a Program Examiner in the National Security Division from 2013 through 2018 and is a defense council member of the Truman National Security Project.

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