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Attacks on the “Administrative State” Are Attacks on Democracy Itself

The problem is the politicians themselves and the moneyed interests that hold them in thrall.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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The chaos deepens. With this constant game of musical chairs among President Donald Trump’s administration, the country lurches dangerously from one incoherent policy to another.

The most recent of a long list of senior officials to be dismissed are Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. Commentators are focusing mainly on whether their departures will tilt the balance in favor of the foreign policy ideologues who aim to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, launch a global trade war and weaken our alliances.

But the deeper story is what has been done to our agencies of government, and the record is appalling.

During his one-year tenure, Tillerson drove out some of our best and most experienced diplomats, left most of the senior positions in the department and overseas unfilled, and went along with a disastrous administration proposal to cut the department’s budget by nearly a third. Our diplomatic corps is being decimated at the very time that we need it the most.

What is worse, the same thing is happening to the professionals in other federal agencies. Hardly a day goes by without an attack on the federal government by the Trump administration.

Tillerson walled himself off from the professional diplomats who could have saved him from needless gaffes; EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt dismisses the scientific consensus on climate change and ignores his own expert staff; and President Trump misses no opportunity to demean the federal agencies. The appointment of John Bolton will further marginalize the professionals.

Politicians of both parties have been running on anti-Washington platforms for years. Usually they abandon this campaign tactic once in office, but Trump continues to attack what ideologues on his staff call the “deep state” or “administrative state” or “permanent government.” Railing against “Washington” fuels his political base, so he keeps doing it.

But the problem is not “Washington.” It is the politicians themselves and the moneyed interests that hold them in thrall. This is why the populist attack on the “administrative state” is so misguided.

Long ago, wise leaders and reformers figured out that “Washington” — meaning a professional civil service detached from partisan politics — was the solution (part of it, anyway) to the problems of partisan gridlock, corruption and cronyism.

Populist reformers of the late 1800s and early 1900s followed the lead of the military to create a professional civil service and professional foreign service, replacing the corrupt spoils system in which government positions were given as rewards to political supporters.

By 1909, two-thirds of the federal government came from the civil service. The professionalism of the service was enhanced by the Hatch Act of 1939, which made it illegal for its members to engage in political activities. In the postwar years, the civil and foreign services were gradually transformed from elite institutions to ones more representative of the broader population.

Thanks to these innovations, we built a federal government that is populated by patriotic civil servants selected on the basis of merit, open to the entire population regardless of wealth, color, or creed, and charged by oath with serving the interests of the country, not just those of a particular president, administration, or political party. It is one of the great achievements of and for American democracy, widely admired and copied around the world.

But with the new wave of misguided populism that is gripping much of the country, we seem to be turning our backs on these hard-won victories. This is turning populism on its head and would return us to an era in which a small and unrepresentative set of appointed officials, chosen because of political loyalty, controls the destiny of the country.

The attacks on the “administrative state” or “permanent government” are attacks on democracy itself. When political loyalists are deep into every government agency, and when agencies such as the FBI and CIA get politicized, it does not serve “the people” and protect them from the “administrative state.” In putting Trump first rather than America first, it is turning us away from the long tradition of a rule-based and merit-based system of government and toward one that will increasingly resemble the authoritarian regimes of which Trump seems so fond.

Robert Hutchings is the Walt and Elspeth Rostow Chair in National Security at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and was dean of the school from 2010 to 2015. He is a former U.S. ambassador and a former chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council.

A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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