Newt Gingrich warned that Trump’s “Drain the Swamp” verbiage was really a lot of bluster. His presidential appointments seems to be reflecting that — but is it really Trump’s fault? Or are his hands tied? Or a mix of both? Jay Cost over at The Weekly Standard, gives some insight into the history of presidential appointments and how the system works. It’s definitely worth a read in its entirety:
As a candidate, Donald Trump promised sweeping change in the way Washington functions. He would tell voters that the system is rigged, it’s broken, it’s run by losers, and only he could fix it. And yet, for all this rhetoric, it is striking how typical his presidential appointments have been: Jeff Sessions, Mike Pompeo, John Kelly, Rick Perry, Elaine Chao, Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Andrew Puzder, Nikki Haley, Seema Verma. Most of these appointees are conservative, of course, but they are conventionally conservative. It is striking, indeed, that the most controversial appointment so far is Rex Tillerson to the State Department. He is an outsider to the ways of Washington but he is still the CEO of a company with $380 billion in total assets and 75,000 employees. A populist barbarian storming the establishment gate, Tillerson is not!
Little wonder that Politico reported last week, “Donald Trump’s White House-in-waiting is already being roiled by divisions, with the conservative outsiders who helped power his historic victory colliding with a Republican Party establishment muscling its way in.”
Something similar happened eight years ago. Barack Obama promised a major break with the previous practices of both parties. Still, his appointments were conventionally liberal: Hillary Clinton, Tim Geithner, Robert Gates (who was actually a holdover from the George W. Bush administration), Eric Holder, Ken Salazar, Tom Vilsack, Gary Locke, Kathleen Sebelius, and so on. Obama largely sampled from the upper echelon of Democratic politicians and policymakers in forming his cabinet—certainly an ideological change from the Bush era but not a fundamental break from past practices.
The system, as it turns out, is much more resilient than presidential candidates on the trail want voters to believe. Electing a new president certainly changes the course of public policy in Washington, but presidents are nevertheless constrained actors. Presidential candidates want us to think they have free rein to make over the government, but the truth is that the occupant of the Oval Office is boxed in from all sides, including in the appointment process.
Trump faces several challenges in using the appointment power to reshape the government. The first is Congress. The Senate possesses the constitutional authority to review certain appointments and reject those nominees it thinks are unfit. This could be why Trump passed over Rudy Giuliani for a cabinet appointment; he may have judged that the confirmation process would be a difficult one for the former mayor of New York City. This might also explain Trump’s decision to make Michael Flynn his national security adviser: The Senate does not review or confirm West Wing appointments.
Congress imposes broader constraints as well. The cabinet departments are, after all, legislative creations, and Congress has the power to write legislation regulating which employees are and are not subject to the appointment process. Starting with the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883, Congress sharply curtailed the presidential nominating power, setting the overwhelming majority of executive department employees outside the discretion of the commander in chief. By and large, the same civil servants who worked under George W. Bush and Barack Obama will continue to work under Donald Trump, without worry that the president can dismiss them.
John F. Kennedy summarized the limits the president faces better than anybody:
The fact is that I think the Congress looks more powerful sitting here than it did when I was there in the Congress. . . . When you are in Congress, you are one of a hundred in the Senate or one of 435 in the House . . . but from here I look at . . . the collective power of the Congress . . . and it is a substantial power.
Executive appointments are just the tip of the iceberg. When Trump enters office, he will find Congress to be a potentially implacable foe on any matter where his will runs contrary to its own.
And Trump—or for that matter any outsider president looking to effect sweeping change—must confront the problem of asymmetric information. The federal government is so complicated that one must possess a great deal of technical, specialized information to manage it properly. The president typically does not possess that information, at least not outside a few policy domains (for instance, as Dwight Eisenhower did with the military). He must appoint officials who possess such knowledge. But where do people acquire this? They usually gain it from participating in the affairs of state—the very same affairs that the president has promised to alter.
There are, of course, experts who are nonetheless looking for big changes—for instance, Rep. Tom Price, whom Trump nominated to head the Department of Health and Human Services, and who came to Congress after a successful career as an orthopedic surgeon, is intent on rolling back Obamacare—but the president still faces a substantial challenge. Oftentimes, those whom he taps to change the system have been longtime participants in sustaining it. This problem is compounded when one considers the large number of lower-level appointments the president is authorized to make, where he can only afford to spend a small amount of face time with his nominees. Quite often, he is forced to trust that the people he has delegated responsibility to will, in turn, make good appointments.
Expertise, in other words, can create a subtle bias for the status quo, which was on full display in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. As Ron Suskind reports in Confidence Men, President Obama wanted to reorganize Citigroup in 2009 and instructed Treasury Secretary Geithner to put together a plan. But, per Suskind, Geithner never followed through. As one high-level banking executive explained to Suskind: “The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t—he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob. And the guy we figured we had to thank for that was Tim. He was our man in Washington.”
The irony is that the president, in many respects, is less able today to fulfill his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” than he was in George Washington’s time. The Senate constrains him, via its advisory role, as always. But now the vast bulk of the executive branch is outside his aegis, easily able to resist his political or ideological agenda. Moreover, the technical expertise required to manage the government means that the relative handful of appointments he does get to make is often from the “establishment” he ran against.
All of this runs contrary to the image of the presidency that candidates wish to cultivate on the campaign trail. They want voters to think of the president as a kind of superman—able to work his will on any policy issue that confronts him. But this is just not the case. The president, in truth, is a restricted government agent, just as all officials are in our system of checks and balances. In this nomination process, we are witnessing an early glimpse of how our system of government will constrain and frustrate Trump, just as it has his predecessors.