There’s a lot of ways to completely hobble a functional government. One is to severely underfund it through declining revenues from a whopper of a tax cut to America’s richest. Another is to simply cut off funding altogether and shut it down. But another, more insidious way is to hollow out the government’s personnel to the point that you’re running a skeleton operation. In fact, that’s just the way Donald Trump likes it.
The gutting of the federal government began early on, with reports of the mass exodus of career employees at agencies like the State Department under then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But the rot from within has continued eating its way straight into Trump’s cabinet. As the Washington Post notes, Trump now has an “acting” chief of staff, attorney general, defense secretary, interior secretary, Office of Management and Budget director, and Environmental Protection Agency chief.
Additionally, Trump’s rate of executive branch confirmations lags far behind his predecessors. For instance, Partnership for Public Service estimates that just 54 percent of Trump’s executive branch nominees have been confirmed, while President Obama had a confirmation rate of 77 percent. Republicans like to blame Trump’s wanting confirmation rate on Democrats, but the Post and the Partnership for Public Service found that “the White House has not bothered to nominate people for 150 out of 705 key Senate-confirmed positions.”
“If you think about our government as a manager of critical risk, we’ve upped our risk,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.
Trump claimed Sunday on CBS’ Face The Nation that leaving the positions open gave him “more flexibility,” and he reportedly thinks the fluidity makes the secretaries more “responsive.”
In the meantime, the “acting” agency heads don’t have as much public clout or inherent authority as a Senate-confirmed appointee would. In fact, some Trump officials have been serving in an “acting” capacity so long that they risk violating the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. The Post writes that “That 1998 law stipulates that individuals cannot occupy Senate-confirmed posts in an acting capacity for longer than 300 days during a president’s first year, and more than 210 days in subsequent years.”
That means certain decisions those acting officials have made, or the actions they have taken, could conceivably be legally challenged in court. In other words, some of what they’re doing may actually be illegitimate in the eyes of the law.
But among the most egregious consequences is the overall weakening of the U.S. government across the board, from the lack of personnel to the diminished power of those who do remain. In a public-facing role like secretary of defense, for instance, having the imprimatur of the president and the inherent authorities included in the title is critical to one’s legitimacy and effectiveness on the world stage.
Russian President Vladimir Putin likely couldn’t be happier with Trump’s “stewardship” of the U.S. government.