State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Continued Attack on Federal Civil Servants

Watching clips of the impeachment hearings last week, I was impressed by the bearing and quiet dignity of the career civil servants testifying. I started my professional career in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1977. It’s been a long time since I worked in the federal government, but I remember my surprise when I first worked there and experienced the level of dedication and talent that was attracted to government service. I saw very few inept bureaucrats in Washington D.C. The foreign service officers who appeared before Congress last week reminded me of the intelligence and integrity of my EPA colleagues of four decades ago.

When Ronald Reagan became president, he installed some anti-environmental leaders in the EPA, notably Anne Gorsuch as administrator and Rita Lavelle as the Associate Administrator for Hazardous Waste. But two years later, the American consensus behind environmental protection reasserted itself and Gorsuch was out and replaced by the EPA’s first administrator, “Mr. Clean”, William Ruckelshaus. Reagan’s advisors decided that an anti-environmental EPA would harm his reelection bid. There will be no similar move away from extreme anti-environmentalism under President Trump. The anti-regulatory stance of the current administration is consistent across all of its regulatory agencies and if anything, the degree of extremism is growing and becoming more embedded in the daily functioning of the federal government.

Along with the anti-regulatory policy articulated by the president and his senior aides, we also see disdain for career public servants. This was clearly the case in their treatment of Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine. In her situation, the disregard descended into a smear campaign organized by the president’s private attorney, former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Incredibly enough, during the time the ambassador was testifying before Congress, the president was attacking her on Twitter. I recognize that we are in a politically polarized society where attacks on policy have morphed into attacks on people. But sometime in the near future, we need to rediscover civility and bring it back to our political life.

One troubling element of this latest attack on the civil service is the deeply held belief among the president and some of his supporters, that civil servants are “never Trumpers” who are not implementing agreed-to foreign policies, but the personal political agenda of the so-called “deep state.” The shocking nature of this attack was captured by Susan B. Glasser in the New Yorker on November 15 when she observed:

For a few hours on Friday, an unassuming career diplomat named Marie (Masha) Yovanovitch did something that I thought had become impossible in Donald Trump’s Washington: she managed to hold on to her amazement and outrage at the President’s amazing and outrageous actions. In this hyper-partisan, hyper-political time, she was neither…She said that she had been surprised and appalled when Trump succumbed to a foreign disinformation campaign and fired her as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine based on false allegations trafficked by Rudy Giuliani, his private lawyer. She had taken on corrupt interests inside Ukraine, and those parties had, in turn, targeted her—and, unbelievably, it had worked. The President, the most powerful man in the world, had gone along with it. “It was terrible,” she said. Yovanovitch said that she was shocked when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to issue a statement in her defense, although she had spent thirty-three years in the Foreign Service. She said that she was intimidated and incredulous when the President attacked her in a phone call with a foreign leader. She said that she felt threatened…He personally ordered her fired. He spoke threateningly of her during a phone call with Ukraine’s new President and did it again, on Twitter, while she was testifying on Capitol Hill….Soon thereafter, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, read the tweet out loud to Yovanovitch, to get her reaction, and called it “witness intimidation.”

The president has built a base of support on his willingness to disregard the norms of the “Washington elite” and it is clear that many people in the United States share his views. I’m certain that some of the president’s “base” have confronted or observed arrogant bureaucrats overly attached to rules and gleefully imposing those rules on them or their friends. Arrogance and a lack of empathy is a bad trait in a government inspector or a president. But what is at stake here, is something more serious than the arrogance of an official or the mindless tweets of an elected leader, it is the competence of our government and the stability of the civil society it serves. In a complex world, we need trained experts to help us navigate that complexity. Attacking the experts that manage our foreign policy will serve to dumb down and de-skill the agencies they serve in. The most capable people will flee from a toxic environment, leaving behind those who have no marketable skills outside of government. That will serve to make our agencies less competent. This hollowing out process will not be limited to the foreign service.

There are many indications that these attacks on the civil service are already serving to decrease the organizational capacity of our federal government. The number of federal government staff has grown very slowly over the past four decades, with most of the increased workload of our growing nation taken on by private contractors. When that trend is coupled with the “deep state” rhetoric of the extreme right, the probability of decreased federal organizational capacity is greatly enhanced. Who will represent the public’s interests when those left in government must manage private contractors? How can government manage a contractor without skilled experts? When government can’t respond in an emergency or fails to adequately regulate lead in water or airline safety, our ability to live in a community is reduced along with our attachment to that community.

As we retreat behind walled, private communities, those who cannot afford to move to private places are forced to live in deteriorating public communities. That segregation is a prescription for instability and violence. In a sense, it’s the broken window theory applied to institutions. When we don’t rebuild something broken in one part of the organization, disorder and lack of decorum spreads to the next part of the organization. If I can’t assume that government regulates the safety of Boeing’s commercial jets, then my safety in the air depends on some private system of safety. But what do I do if the planes become unsafe due to poorly regulated air traffic?  Flight paths are inherently public goods. How do I know that the air traffic controllers are competent? The point is that we all depend on a competent civil service to help us navigate the complex, technologically interdependent world we live in.

Trump’s scorched earth tactics for defending his presidency are the legacy of his mentor, the hyper-combative lawyer Roy Cohn, and his years as a deal-making businessman in New York City many decades ago. The impact of those tactics on our civil service and civil society is likely to be devastating and long-lasting. The assault on facts, institutions and civil servants is coming from the very person we count on to arbitrate facts, defend our norms and values, and protect our institutions. The president is our head of state as well as our head of government. As head of state, his job is to represent all of us, not just his base. It will take many years to rebuild America’s institutions and norms and if we are not careful the stable, creative, high energy and path-breaking nation we inherited will slowly fade into the sunset.

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