Democracy & Government

Deconstructing the Administrative State

Why slashing the federal bureaucracy is bad for us all.

Deconstructing the Administrative State

Cutting the federal workforce without addressing the statutory obligations and mandates just puts more demand on the remaining employees. This drives a potential downward spiral, writes Lee Drutman. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

The Trump administration has proposed massive cuts to discretionary federal spending. This is apparently what chief strategist Steve Bannon meant when he recently called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

The budget would cut programs that provide school lunches for poor kids, that help low-income families heat their homes, that support STEM education. It would slash the funding that provides grants for air pollution control and dozens of other services primarily dedicated to poor people, a clean environment, science and the arts. It could cut things you’d never imagined.

For decades, Republicans have complained about the size and reach of government. But the funny thing is that Republicans have actually done very little to cut it when they’ve been in power.

While this is the most aggressive hatchet a Republican president has ever proposed for the federal government, it’s not entirely new. For decades, Republicans have complained about the size and reach of government. But the funny thing is that Republicans have actually done very little to cut it when they’ve been in power. In 1981, Ronald Reagan took office telling the nation that “government is the problem.” People envisioned their dollars frittered away on a bloated bureaucracy. However, since that time the share of the GDP devoted to federal spending has generally hovered around 21 percent. Most of the decline in federal spending as share of GDP happened in the 1990s, when a Democrat was president.

At the same time, the size of the federal workforce is down, from about 2.2 million when Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 to about 2 million when Barack Obama won re-election in 2012. Yet the population of the US during this period increased from 236 million in 1984 to around 314 million in 2012. And the size of the federal budget increased from $1.5 trillion to nearly $3.5 trillion. So that means fewer bureaucrats accounting for more money, and serving more people. No wonder people are frustrated with government.

Nobody doubts that there are inefficiencies in the federal government. But slashing the budget and firing bureaucrats isn’t going to solve the problem. Government agencies have mandates and obligations to provide services, and millions of Americans depend on these services every day….

As John J.DiIulio Jr. has documented in his recent book, Bring Back the Bureaucrats, rather than providing services directly, the federal government now contracts and subcontracts more and more with a diffuse and sprawling network of private and subsidiary service providers. This creates an accounting and oversight nightmare that almost always results in more waste, fraud, and abuse.

Today’s federal civil service is not bloated,” says DiIulio, “it is overloaded. We have too few federal bureaucrats monitoring too many grants and contracts, and handling too many dollars.” Moreover, as Donald F. Kettl recently noted, 32 of 34 areas identified in a recent Government Accountability Office report as at risk for fraud, waste and abuse are the very areas “managed through a complex network of proxies. These programs are big and complex. They’re hard to manage. We don’t do it well.”

To Kettl, this is

“[T]he big challenge that ultimately faces Bannon’s campaign to deconstruct the administrative state….the administration can’t produce less government with fewer bureaucrats — just worse government, one that disappoints citizens even more and wastes far more tax dollars.”

Nobody doubts that there are inefficiencies in the federal government. But slashing the budget and firing bureaucrats isn’t going to solve the problem. Government agencies have mandates and obligations to provide services, and millions of Americans depend on these services every day (even if not all of them understand or appreciate that they are government services). For example, services of programs like the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, Senior Community Service Employment Program or the Appalachian Regional Commission (all on the chopping block) operate behind the scenes, rarely advertising themselves directly. But they help countless real people.

Cutting the federal workforce without addressing the statutory obligations and mandates just puts more demand on the remaining employees. This drives a potential downward spiral.

Most likely, these programs will be retained by Congress. But even if they don’t go, there are many more like them in danger. Cutting the federal workforce without addressing the statutory obligations and mandates just puts more demand on the remaining employees. This drives a potential downward spiral. As the federal workforce gets more overburdened, performance will decline further. Employees will quit, and working for the government will become even less appealing for future potential employees. Already, administrative agencies are suffering from what Paul C. Light calls “the empty government talent pool.”

As Light writes:

“Beset by downsizing, recurrent political scandal, and a never-ending war on waste, the federal government has yet to articulate a clear vision of how to compete against the private sector for talent. Agencies are struggling just to hold the talent they already have, let alone imagine a new public service in which expertise moves more freely across the sectors.”

That much of what federal agencies do is mandated by statute is an important and underappreciated point. And here, the responsibility falls on Congress. As Kevin Kosar recently noted:

“Much of the incoherence of the federal government is written into law, which a president cannot change on his own. To merge programs and agencies, or to meat-ax them entirely, requires Congress to act.”

For example, there are many overlapping programs that serve low-income populations, but the welter of bureaucracy a low-income person confronts often undermines the effectiveness of such programs. There are efficiencies to be had. But Congress needs to pay attention enough to the way the system functions to update the laws.

(Congress) mostly operates through neglect, with occasional moments of random punishment — like an alcoholic parent who only occasionally shows up to yell at his children, but mostly ignores them and gives them just enough of an allowance to make sure they don’t starve.

Unfortunately, Congress has largely abdicated its role here. That’s because Congress is even more underresourced than the executive branch. This means Congress has little capacity to effectively oversee the executive branch or even attempt to bring coherence to its operations. Instead, it mostly operates through neglect, with occasional moments of random punishment — like an alcoholic parent who only occasionally shows up to yell at his children, but mostly ignores them and gives them just enough of an allowance to make sure they don’t starve. On regulatory matters, many of these inquisitions into government spending programs come on behalf of industry lobbyists. Other times (see Benghazi) they are merely to score political points. The result is that administrative agencies just try to avoid controversy, keeping their heads down and not getting creative. This further contributes to an administrative state that is not as effective as it could be, and a risk-averse culture that has a hard time attracting energetic young talent.

Yet if Congress were to actually set its mind to improving the efficiency of government, it would probably find that while yes, there is plenty of waste and inefficiency, most of the specific things that government does are actually quite popular, and that most government employees are actually dedicated public servants who work hard and make sacrifices to engage in public service.

One irony of Trump’s proposed budget cuts is that they will likely make members of Congress more aware of how much people actually depend on government. By threatening to cut so many programs, Trump may make many people appreciate all the things government does for them. Members of Congress are going to be hearing a lot more about the programs on the chopping block.

But presumably members of Congress have actually known some of this for a long time, which is why they haven’t cut these programs, keeping government spending roughly constant. They’ve just cut the number of bureaucrats in Washington relative to the size of the government, dealing with government in the abstract (“bureaucrats”) while keeping government in the specific (actual programs).

Perhaps Trump’s proposal finally goes too far, making explicit what has been implicit for too long, and might just be the thing that makes us appreciate and value government again. But this is just the first step. Liberals also need to recognize that for government to work well, we need to invest in both bureaucrats and in Congress. We need a Congress with the resources to take the administrative state seriously, to provide helpful oversight and update laws and mandates as appropriate. And we need enough bureaucrats to fulfill those mandates, and to give them the creativity to do it well.

Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow with New America's political reform program, the author of The Business of America Is Lobbying and the 2016 winner of the American Political Science Association's Robert A. Dahl Award for scholarship of the highest quality on the subject of democracy. Follow him on Twitter: @leedrutman.

RELATED CONTENT