We were the Reagan Revolution. Movement conservatives battle-hardened in the fierce campaigns of 1976 and 1980 who followed Ronald Reagan to Washington, committed to overthrowing the established liberal order of both political parties.
After eight hard years, the war was left unconcluded. Battles were certainly won, territory was taken and foreign policy righted. But the war between America’s founding values and the radical utopians who would “transform” the Republic, never really ends.
However, the reason the Reagan legacy lives on with such vibrancy and power in the public mind is that of the last nine administrations, his is the one that left lasting lessons of what can be accomplished with committed conservative leadership and a lot of perspiration.
And perhaps none of those lessons is now more important – and more relevant for the new Trump Administration – than the fact that personnel is policy. This is true for the simple fact that government is politics. The idea of a neutral government where kindly things just happen is an illusion.
Politics drives Washington, therefore politics drives the government up and down the line agencies.
No one has done more to show us in word and deed how this works out in the real world of government than Donald J. Devine, one of the intellectual leaders and brave hearted warriors that followed Ronald Reagan to Washington, and served four years as his Director of Personnel Management (OPM).
Mr. Devine, originally a college professor, an economist, social scientist, historian, and author who advised Mr. Reagan in both national campaigns, wrote a book on his tenure as the head of OPM in 1991, originally titled Reagan’s Terrible Swift Sword: An Insider’s Story of Abuse and Reform within the Federal Bureaucracy.
Now, Mr. Devine does the conservative movement and Trump White House a great service by publishing an abridged second edition of his personnel classic re-named Political Management of the Bureaucracy: A Guide to Reform and Control (available here in both e-Book and paperback).
As Morton Blackwell, founder and President of the nationally prominent Leadership Institute and himself a veteran of the Reagan White House in both personnel and policy positions, wrote in his forward for this second edition:
“For the first time since 1981, our county has a new presidential administration that appears to be serious about curtailing the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. Reform is in the air, but [most people] who write about the pace of President Trump’s appointments and his plans to re-shape and improve the federal work force are talking through their hats! They don’t understand the process [or know] the actual problems and opportunities.”
But, Donald Devine does.
Political Management of the Bureaucracy is an essential primer for anyone who is interested in not just the proper and effective management of the federal government – but in controlling and reforming the vast administrative, or deep state. It is no accident that the powerful administrative state has become a self-protecting, self-perpetuating fifth branch of government that curtails, short-circuits or wait’s out proposed laws, policies and directives that do not fit its self-appointed agenda.
Professor Devine takes any unacquainted readers back to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson – aside from Barack Obama, the most radical president of the twentieth century, who despised the Constitution and its divided responsibilities – whom Mr. Devine contends saddled the White House with its own administrative state, and began the process of bureaucratizing (some would say weaponizing) the government. This process turned the government from the politically driven representation of the people’s vote, to a “professionally” managed and “value free” organization largely indifferent to the citizens will. Mr. Devine writes of this change in the White House:
“Since the time of Woodrow Wilson, those who have believed in his theory of nonpolitical administration of government have asked for two reforms that they claimed would lead to better and more efficient government: an Executive branch which was, (1) centralized in a presidency composed of powerful White House staff offices to mobilize Congress and the bureaucracy to carry out the president’s mandate; and (2) staffed by a professional bureaucracy that followed neutral rather than political principles of administration, with leadership provided by career civil servants rather than by political appointees.”
The result of this change in government organization that was eventually accepted by Democrats and Republicans alike, is that the White House staff and the line agencies are constantly at war with each other. There has been a diminution of the Cabinet system were the president’s appointees are entrusted with carrying out the stated agenda, to a powerful White House, populated largely with non-political staffers who can and do act outside of the line agencies themselves. The White House staff effectively control the agenda, or lack of one. Worse still, the staff is often unwilling or functionally unable to conduct the president’s policy or control specific events that can only be accomplished by the resources of the line agencies.
Mr. Devine wistfully notes the White House had 37 paid staff in 1937, fought the Second World War with less than a hundred, and now the modern White House employs several thousand, the vast majority of whom are career staff. He also provides many examples of how this model of bureaucracy directly interferes with stated policy and protects the administrative state at all costs.
Mr. Devine’s book is no breezy read, but is filled with antidotes and observations from a man who was on the ground, doing the hard and thankless work of bringing reform to the government, and trimming a 100,000 federal employees while he was at it. And he provides much wisdom on why the reforms need to go much further. In addition, he provides a fascinating analysis of the first four years of the Reagan White House, its personalities, how the powerful staff functioned, and the inter-government squabbles.
But, the real value of Mr. Devine’s keen insights are that they take us back to an essential reality; “I have never been able to understand why the simple truth that politics is political is so little understood in the American government.” There is no such thing as neutral public management of a political enterprise.
Presidents, especially transformative presidents like President Reagan, and hopefully President Trump, must make political background, philosophy and loyalty the primary, not the incidental qualities of the political appointees in the Administration. Business executives, Mr. Devine notes, “can control policy using the bottom line; but top government managers cannot delegate without doing so with policy.”
Hopefully in time, the wisdom and common sense of managing the government through the agencies and the president’s top appointees can replace the idea that an army of bureaucrats can be neutral agents of a political ”change” agenda.
That need is demonstrated every day with President Trump, as it was with President Reagan nearly four decades ago, in the irrational vitriol and outright hatred shown to the President, being compounded by the incessant illegal leaks, outright insubordination and a contempt for the voters who elected them.
The swamp is way too full.