The bizarre experience of the current presidency has made abundantly clear that the US government requires an overhaul. Least the current administration take the entire hit for incompetence and kowtowing to the military-industrial complex, evidence of delusion, misappropriation, and doublespeak may be readily traced to successive Republican and Democratic administrations. The result is a parody of American values and the principles that inspired the US Constitution.
The striking failure and blame game being played out in the public and international sphere over the Covid-19 debacle has rendered US intelligence and preparedness a mockery. The public can only wonder how the combined 22,000 plus employees at the CDC and the FDA and the hundreds of thousands of employees in the CIA, FBI, Military intelligence agencies, and private contractors could have missed the infectious threat from Covid-19 and its profound consequences for the US economy and prestige. The US administration acts like a entitled adolescent who ignored well-posted warning signs about a dangerous tide and who complains that daddy didn’t warn about the risk. When the US government blames the Chinese, does the administration not realize how impotent, ineffectual, and childish it appears? But the real question is how is it that the government with all its resources could have been so woefully unprepared for the pandemic. The national morass is not entirely the consequence of lunacy and duplicity at the executive level. The flop at the top reflects structural issues that bear upon the organization of government and distribution of power within government.
Size and complexity of the government
Federal bureaucracies, agencies, departments and the like that legitimately contribute to significant government policies number in the hundreds. Added to these voices are those from corporations and special interests in the public sector. Uncoordinated, the voices produce cacophony.
According to the US Office of Personnel Management, the Federal executive branch is divided into 15 Cabinet Level Departments, subdivided into Cabinet Level Agencies, further divided by Large, Medium, and Small Independent Agencies. Together the total is approximately 440 entities. Other government sources estimate the number of entities between approximately 250 to 400.
The entities vary enormously in size and budget. Cabinet level departments employ personnel in the tens to hundreds of thousands and small independent agencies in the single digits. Although size matters, small agencies, under one hundred employees, play a significant role in government, for example, the National Security Council, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, the Office of Government Ethics, and so on.
The total number of civilian employees of the executive branch of government, exclusive of the postal department, is approximately 2.2 million. Of this number, the combined total for non-uniformed employees of the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security is 1.4 million. This does not include military and security uniformed personnel that total another 1.4 million, 4.1 million Federal contract employees and 1.2 million grant employees, the majority of whom are under contract with Defense, Homeland Security, and affiliated agencies.
Civil service is based upon merit and freedom from patronage or political influence. The rank and file of Federal civilian employees are selected through civil service guidelines by oversight from the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board. Civilian employees fall into three major classifications. These are the competitive service, the Senior Executive Service, and the “excepted” service. The competitive service selects employees through competition open to all applicants; the Senior Executive Service entails either advancement based upon leadership and skill or political appointment; and the excepted service encompasses non-competitive jobs in selected agencies such as the CIA, FBI, and State Department.
Administrative appointments and governmental function
With change in administrations, a new game begins. The Office of the President appoints approximately 10,000 personnel to government roles. Of this number approximately 1,200 Executive appointees to prominent positions require the legislative approval. The appointees include the heads of every Executive Department and their assistants, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, and Inspector Generals of Departments. The list extends to members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Members of the US International Trade Commission, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Director of the National Science Foundation, and so on –appointees to virtually every government department entrusted to represent, oversee, or direct vital government functions. Another 7 to 8 thousand appointees require no congressional approval and serve in agencies, commissions, and directorates, large and small.
Upon retiring from office, the outgoing administration can appoint favored individuals to regular civil service appointments. These individuals are protected by civil service regulations. Appropriately, this is called “burrowing”, so Departments can insert politically motivated moles protected by civil service regulations. During his presidency, Trump became well acquainted with flak from burrowed appointees from previous administrations.
In addition to the Executive’s authority to appoint heads of departments, members of boards and commissions, credential some and deny others, the executive can withhold funding from disfavored departments to subvert activity or favor political agendas.
In short, the Federal government with its 2.1 million civilian employees can be appropriated by the Executive to promote its biases and politics. The reports of Federal Departments can be ignored. Information can be edited or distorted to fit a narrative. The Executive by virtue of appointments and power of the budget can mute or amplify Departmental voices at will. The intent of legislature and the public interest can easily be ignored, silenced, or manipulated to accord with a political agenda.
Emblematic of political influence
Witness the recent muting of the Environmental Protection Agency, roll-backs in more than 90 of the Agency’s regulations, such as revocation of California’s auto emission code, withdrawal of a requirement to report powerplant methane emissions, and ending implementation of a rule that prohibited the use of hydrofluorocarbons in air-conditioners and refrigerators. More recently the administration moved to eliminate scientific studies that do not make available raw data protected by confidentiality or HIPPA regulations. The motivation for this proposal appears to be the elimination of medical studies that link pollution to human health.
Administration appointees appeared to ignore warnings from governmental scientists in the months before the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was relieved of his post and transferred to another agency because he repeatedly had raised the alarm about the risks and dangers of Covid-19 in early January, 2020 –well before the virus had become firmly established in the US. In a whistleblower complaint, Dr Bright reported that the politically appointed Secretary of Human Health and Services ignored his early warnings about the risk of pandemic and the need to act “with urgency” to explore treatments, develop vaccines, obtain N95 masks, and other protective gear. According to the same complaint, Dr Bright contended that earlier in his tenure he had been pressured by another Trump appointee who served as Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response to buy drugs and medical equipment from firms linked to the administration
Covid-19 Revealed Flawed Governance
The failure of foresight, preparation, and response by the Federal government to the Covid-19 crisis is historic. Somehow, more than 22,000 civilian employees of the CDC and the FDA and the many thousands of US intelligence employees did not manage to communicate to the Whitehouse that a grave biological and fiscal threat loomed for the US. The administration blame game for failure to warn displays serious institutional and executive weakness. Governmental mechanisms of appraisal, policy, and communication appear broken.
The Covid-19 debacle is a wakeup call to all Americans that governance requires reappraisal. The failure of government to prepare for the pandemic may have arisen from multiple causes, such as Executive or Departmental distraction, failure to prioritize, miscommunication, or misunderstanding. The very complexity of government, its multiple departments, bureaus, agencies, and boards may overwhelm communication channels. The growth of government under the Executive branch has far outstripped the size of government as envisioned by the Constitution. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the government has grown too large and complex for interpretation and decision-making to be the providence of a single man.
The placement of political appointees at the head of every major department, agency, bureau, and board works at cross-purposes to integrity in government. Administration agendas and simple cronyism subvert the public good. No matter how dedicated the governmental employees, a naïve, inexperienced, incompetent, or politically motivated director can subvert the mission and purpose of the institution. Poor judgment at the top risks amplification by the appointment of advisors and heads of executive departments with poor judgment. The Covid-19 experience underscores that government and the nation cannot afford such a gamble.
The Solution: Elimination of Cronyism, Empowerment of Executive Departments, Democratic Review
Merit-based Selection of Government Personnel: To end patronage and promote openness, fair play, and leadership in the public interest, cronyism needs replacement. The direct solution to this abysmal situation is elimination of political appointments, except those directly chosen to interface with established departments of government and to inform and advise the Executive. Secretaries of Cabinet Departments, Assistant Secretaries, and agency directors would be selected through processes determined by the Office of Personnel Management, the successor to the US Civil Service Commission. Candidates for administrative positions would be evaluated by criteria for administrative knowledge, skill, and experience in public or private service. Executive directors, agency heads, commissioners, and board members would be determined by examination, experience, and recommendation. “Burrowing” or appointment by the Executive of personnel to civil service positions, would be prohibited.
Publication of Annual/Semiannual Reports: Democracy has lagged technology. The internet has made possible dissemination of information, decisions, and plans by Cabinet Departments and agencies. Major government departments and agencies would be required to publish annual reviews of priorities, policies, and activities with a view to the departmental missions and the public interest. The reviews would be available to the public, legislative and executive branches. The aim is to inform, promote dialog, and invite additional perspectives. With dissemination of reports, the electorate would be encouraged to comment and participate in all facets of government. The reviews would likely foster discussion, suggestions, and recommendations by constituencies. In much the same as a comment section of a blog, responses by constituents would be preserved as part of the record to guide Departmental and Executive decisions. This would provide a 21st century forum of democracy. Gone would be the necessity to keep government secrets and limit public knowledge.
Periodic Review of Departmental and Agency Directors: Just as in the public sector, operating officers would be subject to periodic internal and external evaluation. Thus, for example, the head of the EPA might be assessed every two or four years by coworkers, environmental experts, and members of the business community and public. The procedures for fair and impartial reviews might vary by Department. Reviews may carry recommendations and periodic rotations may be required.
Chief Executive as Coordinator-in-Chief. In the proposed model, the Executive is no longer a King, but is “first among peers” cast to guide areas of policy, governance, and implementation. The Executive retains the bully pulpit, links with the legislative branch, the power of the veto, chief of the military, and control of the budget.
Cabinet Departments are granted autonomous voices in the public interest for all to hear. What the Executive sees is what the public and legislature sees. No more hiding behind ignorance. No more blaming to deflect ignorance or arrogance. This ushers in a new day for democracy rooted in knowledge, participation, and attention to what is uniquely important to citizenry. For some, this is commerce, for others, the interior, defense, agriculture, health, or housing. For all, this will be vital, alive government.
In this vision, what was covert in government becomes overt. The Executive is tamed, not nullified. The public and legislature are given a window into the workings of government, an appreciation of its scope, agendas, processes of negotiation, and compromises. The proposed changes do not call for modification of the Constitution but require legislative changes in selection of Cabinet and agency directors and personnel. These legislative changes adjust Executive powers to bring these powers more in line with the original Constitutional vision of balance among the branches of government. The changes bring multiple voices to the table, insure an informed electorate, and provide a necessary step for the revitalization of democracy.
*Leland van den Daele, PhD, ABPP is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. He trained at the American Institute for Psychoanalysis (AIP) in New York City and has taught at University of Illinois, Rutgers University, Columbia University, and California School of Professional Psychology. Leland is a clinical psychologist with interests in culture, character, and social cohesion.