The Senate still hasn’t voted on ObamaCare reform, U.S. workers are still waiting for tax cuts to drive economic growth and President of the United States Donald Trump is trading insults with the co-hosts of an MSNBC talk show. Yet Mr. Trump appears to be making progress in what might have seemed the most difficult task given to him by voters in 2016: reducing the power of Washington’s permanent bureaucracy.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasn’t exactly dying to move to Washington to run a federal department, but he seems to have warmed to the task. Max Bergmann, a former Obama Administration official now at the leftist Center for American Progress, writes in Politico that the “deconstruction of the State Department is well underway.” Discounting for the usual Beltway hyperbole, this probably isn’t as good as it sounds.
All kidding aside, the State Department is one federal agency that was actually contemplated by America’s founders. Conducting foreign policy is an important and necessary task for our central government. But like so much of the Beltway bureaucracy State has been overfunded and undermanaged for years. Now, despite what you may have read about untouchable bureaucrats unaccountable to the public they are supposed to serve, Mr. Tillerson has found ways to clean house, at least according to Mr. Bergmann:
As I walked through the halls once stalked by diplomatic giants like Dean Acheson and James Baker, the deconstruction was literally visible. Furniture from now-closed offices crowded the hallways. Dropping in on one of my old offices, I expected to see a former colleague—a career senior foreign service officer—but was stunned to find out she had been abruptly forced into retirement and had departed the previous week. This office, once bustling, had just one person present, keeping on the lights.
The former Obama appointee is apparently so unnerved by the Trump-Tillerson era at State that he lets slip the fact that the career staff didn’t think much of the previous management either, and that the conservative critique of the department is at least partly true:
When Rex Tillerson was announced as secretary of state, there was a general feeling of excitement and relief in the department. After eight years of high-profile, jet-setting secretaries, the building was genuinely looking forward to having someone experienced in corporate management. Like all large, sprawling organizations, the State Department’s structure is in perpetual need of an organizational rethink. That was what was hoped for, but that is not what is happening. Tillerson is not reorganizing, he’s downsizing.
Do taxpayers dare to dream? As odd as this sounds for regular observers of the federal leviathan, the new boss seems to be imposing the kind of tough measures often seen at struggling companies, but almost never witnessed at government departments that have lost their way:
While the lack of senior political appointees has gotten a lot of attention, less attention has been paid to the hollowing out of the career workforce, who actually run the department day to day. Tillerson has canceled the incoming class of foreign service officers. This as if the Navy told all of its incoming Naval Academy officers they weren’t needed. Senior officers have been unceremoniously pushed out. Many saw the writing on the wall and just retired, and many others are now awaiting buyout offers. He has dismissed State’s equivalent of an officer reserve—retired FSOs, who are often called upon to fill State’s many short-term staffing gaps, have been sent home despite no one to replace them. Office managers are now told three people must depart before they can make one hire.
Perhaps the Tillerson method could work at other agencies too. Mr. Bergmann for his part seems to be disappointed that the un-elected career staff has not been able to impose its will on the duly-elected political leadership:
At the root of the problem is the inherent distrust of the State Department and career officers. I can sympathize with this—I, too, was once a naive political appointee, like many of the Trump people. During the 2000s, when I was in my 20s, I couldn’t imagine anyone working for George W. Bush. I often interpreted every action from the Bush administration in the most nefarious way possible. Almost immediately after entering government, I realized how foolish I had been.
For most of Foggy Bottom, the politics of Washington might as well have been the politics of Timbuktu—a distant concern, with little relevance to most people’s work.
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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal