Last night, President Trump took to the nation’s airwaves to once again demand funding for his signature border wall. Among those watching at home were the approximately 800,000 federal employees who haven’t been paid as a result of the president’s ongoing partial government shutdown. According to one common narrative, these unfortunate souls are collateral damage in the president’s battle with Democrats over border-wall funding. But viewed in the broader context of Trump’s posture toward the federal workforce, the picture looks very different. Far from unintended casualties, federal workers are themselves targets in the president’s ongoing offensive against public employees; the border-wall standoff is merely the pretext de jure.
That government workers should be held in low regard should surprise no one. The trope of the lazy government worker has been a recurring theme on the campaign trail for generations, for one simple reason: It resonates with voters who perceive federal workers as overpaid, underperforming bean counters. And it’s true that there are many examples of public employees engaging in waste, fraud, and abuse, either with malign intent or through incompetence. But the vast majority of public servants perform their jobs skillfully with an unimpeachable commitment to public service. That’s why, prior to Trump, presidents and lawmakers have generally resisted the urge to legislate to the exception once in office. No more.
Trump sauntered into the Oval Office with a very different mindset than the men who came before him. Unlike them, Trump was a businessman, not a politician; and he was going to run the federal government his way, just like he ran his businesses—even if it was based on perceptions untethered to fact, and even if it ran counter to the national interest. Ironically, it is the president’s business experience that should have made him better aware than most that the success of any enterprise is predicated on respecting and maintaining its human resources.
Nonetheless, Trump’s disdain for the federal workforce was evident even before he took office. Eschewing established norms designed to smoothly transition power from one administration to the next, Trump rejected the advice and expertise of his civil service in favor of a high-risk, low-reward approach driven by the Trump family and their inner circle. The results have been as devastating as they were predictable.
Since the very beginning, the Trump Administration has hemorrhaged talent at all levels, but most significantly among the senior civil service—those whose institutional knowledge and wise counsel are essential to the success of both foreign and domestic policy. In fact, according to The Washington Post, the president has yet to nominate anyone to fill about 37 percent of the 700 or so top jobs in his administration. That failure not only cripples our nation’s ability to implement presidential initiatives and respond to threats and emergencies, it irreparably harms American credibility abroad and emboldens rivals for global hegemony.
Sadly, notwithstanding President Trump’s televised appeal, there remains no end in sight for the partial government shutdown. And for the time being, the 800,000 or so federal workers will remain held hostage to the president’s unholy quest for an ineffective physical barrier that serves no material border-security function.
If the United States is to achieve the outcomes and operational standards we want from our federal government, agencies must be staffed with career professionals with the skill and expertise necessary to carry out their duties effectively. And to attract that kind of talent, the federal government needs to be the kind of workplace worthy of such individuals. In the long-run, this will require more competitive salaries and better working conditions. But in the meantime, ending this ill-conceived shutdown and getting the government back up and running would be a good start.