The Trump administration’s first week has been characterized, from both leftand right, as “shock and awe.” Among other abrupt changes, the State Department’s senior leadership team either resigned or has been fired.
That gives us significant insight into how President Trump will govern. Despite regular attacks on the bureaucracy during his campaign, Trump needs federal agencies to be fully staffed and competent if he hopes to succeed. Political science research suggests that his problems are only beginning.
Lawmaking is not just a process by which Congress passes a bill and the president signs it. Much of it relies on federal agencies. Their rulemaking, which accounts for 90 percent of all federal laws, is how much policymaking in the United States actually occurs. An incompetent, understaffed bureaucracy bodes poorly for effective governing.
Staffing key agency posts is already a difficult task. Officials in President Bill Clinton’s administration describe the appointment process as “chaotic,” “emotional” and “overwhelming,” according to David Lewis’s research. It looks as though Trump’s team is a living testament to these challenges.
Research on presidential appointments around transitions shows that, first, presidents attempt to control agencies they don’t trust by appointing loyal partisans to middle-management positions. The key question is then whether these loyalists also have the requisite qualifications and experience.
As Marissa Golden argues, career bureaucrats — those not appointed by the president — are willing to work with political appointees, but the quality of the appointees matters.
When presidents do appoint qualified people, some bureaucrats may leave because of ideological differences with their new boss, but not because of any deeply held concerns about the mission of the agency. But appointing less-qualified loyalists is a different matter. When presidents seek to politicize agencies via purely patronage appointments, agencies will suffer much more. Many career bureaucrats, believing that their efforts will be wasted under incompetent leadership pursuing objectionable goals, leave the agency for good.