At the core of the Revolving Door Project’s work is a deeply held belief that government should work to advance the public interest, not the goals of a wealthy and well-connected few. For too long, this has been far from the reality. By quietly capturing key positions throughout the executive branch, corporate America has reshaped the rules that govern our economy. RDP regularly calls attention to these oft-overlooked corporate allies to increase the political costs of politicians’ consequential personnel concessions. At the same time, we are leading the way in envisioning an alternative model — one in which political appointments go to a more representative, public-interest minded class of leaders — and charting how we get there.
As important as this work is, however, it alone will not be sufficient to remake government for the people. Even the most committed, effective leaders can do very little to advance the public interest if the institutions they lead are broken. And our governing infrastructure is crumbling. After years of attacks from both sides of the aisle, the federal government is able to do less overall and to do what it still does less effectively. This is not, as some would have you believe, an inherent failure endemic to “Big Government” but the opposite — ineffectiveness is the direct result of disinvestment.
Civil service capacity*, in particular, has suffered. The corps of people who make the government run each day is shrinking when compared to the country’s population. It is also aging as it struggles to attract new talent, especially under austerity regimes such as the Obama-Boehner “sequester deal” in which new hiring was often off the table. The federal government today employs about as many workers as it did in 1960, which some conservatives see as a sign of their failure not to gut it more. Meanwhile, civil servants are regularly denigrated as lazy, ineffective, and greedy. And, of course, these problems only grew more acute throughout Donald Trump’s destructive four years in office.
If we want the government to work for the people again, we can no longer neglect the question of who is doing that work. The Revolving Door Project is working to draw attention to this overlooked aspect of governance and to ensure that our leaders have the political will to take it on. That work can be divided into two overarching tranches: demanding accountability for Trump’s particularly egregious attacks on the civil service and proposing a more expansive vision for full-time federal personnel policy going forward.
Coming to Terms with Trump’s Legacy
Throughout his time in office, Trump made no secret of his contempt for the civil service. In ways both big and small, Trump and his cronies made it more difficult for members of the federal workforce to do their jobs and in the process rendered us all much less safe. Career employees who contradicted him were at best ignored and at worst suffered severe retaliation. Entire offices that were seen to pose a threat were moved across the country. Meanwhile new hiring was frozen and budgets slashed, leaving those who remained with the trying task of doing more with less. In the administration’s closing days it went even further, lobbing a bomb at the civil service system in the form of Trump’s schedule F executive order.
More disturbing still is the fact that these attacks undertaken in the public eye likely only represent the tip of the iceberg. This administration could easily have been accomplishing much more behind closed doors. This includes politicizing career hiring processes (as occurred during the George W. Bush administration), expanding the use of government contracting, reorganizing offices to reduce career officials power, and more. Each of these moves will cause problems over the long-term if not uncovered and reversed. A first step, therefore, in rebuilding the civil service and government capacity will be to clearly understand what the Trump administration accomplished.
Envisioning Something New
In addition to turning our gaze backwards to the last four years, Revolving Door Project is working to chart a path forwards. Specific proposals to rebuild the civil service and increase the government’s capacity to act in the public interest will vary, but we believe that all should adhere to the following basic principles:
- We can no longer tolerate personnel shortfalls. Political leaders must commit to investing what it takes to ensure that the civil service has the capacity it needs – in terms of the raw number of people, technical resources, and expertise – to carry out its functions. That will include a short term surge to use existing authorities to replenish agencies devastated by Trump as well as serious medium and long term initiatives.
- We must elevate and valorize civil servants’ expertise. Trump’s denigration of civil service expertise has been extraordinary, but he is far from the first president to sideline career experts. The balance of power between political appointees and civil servants has shifted steadily in the former’s favor under both Democratic and Republican presidents. That means higher turnover and less experience in key decision-making roles. It is time to start shifting the balance back by making more space for civil servants to weigh in at the highest levels. Hero of the moment, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is far from the only public servant with the expertise and commitment to meaningfully advance the public interest in times of peace and of crisis alike. The next administration should look to unleash this vast store of knowledge and public-minded energy.
- Civil service jobs should be good jobs. To attract new civil service entrants, policymakers must improve the quality of civil service jobs. Many civil servants operate in a hostile environment, subject to political attacks (from both outside the walls of government and inside them) which often manifests in chronic underfunding, and thus, overwork. Our political leaders must reject this scapegoating wholesale.
In addition to funding under-resourced departments, they should commit to creating more pathways for hiring (especially for people from marginalized communities who are severely underrepresented in the civil service’s upper ranks) and to providing career officials with more meaningful control over executive-branch policymaking. That must involve recognizing unions representing civil service workers as legitimate stakeholders with whom leaders should negotiate in good faith. It should also include trimming down the growth in layers of political appointees (many of whom lack subject matter expertise) who sit between career experts and decision-making power. While political appointees are an important and necessary part of executive branch governance, excessive politicization of the type we see today is detrimental.
- After years of government outsourcing, we need a new wave of insourcing. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration “reinvented” government, putting many of its core functions into the hands of contractors. These policies particularly devastated workers of color who are disproportionately represented in the public workforce and for whom public employment has long represented an especially promising pathway to the middle class. Over two decades later, it is clear that that strategy has failed. Government contractors are neither cheaper nor, seemingly, more effective.
As for the workers, those employed by contractors tend to have lower wages and worse benefits than their public sector counterparts (the costliness of this workforce stems from the spoils going to firms’ senior management, shareholders, and lobbying/government relations teams). And, with the number of contract workers ballooning, it is becoming ever more difficult for Congress to properly oversee this “shadow” workforce. It’s past time that the federal government take back control of more of the work of government, for the sake of those who are actually doing the jobs and in the spirit of greater democratic control.
Those who wish to see the federal government work for the public interest cannot afford to ignore the plight of those who will be tasked with reaching these goals. By improving the quality of civil service jobs, policies in line with these principles will encourage new people to join the federal workforce and make it so that those who do join want to stay. That will translate, in turn, to greater expertise in policy decision-making, better continuity of operations during transitions, and a greater capacity to respond to the country’s long- and short-term challenges. In short, such policies will help to grant our federal government the capacity to effectuate structural changes.
* We define civil service personnel broadly to include both members of the civil service and career officials in “excepted” roles like those at the Department of Justice or the Treasury Department.
Below you will find some of the project’s writing and research on government capacity. For a selection of quotes and interviews on the topic, please visit this page.
May 26, 2023
Ethics in GovernmentExecutive BranchGovernanceGovernment CapacityMedia Accountability
RELEASE: Revolving Door Project Reacts to Biden’s Debt Ceiling Cave & the Media’s Incompetent Coverage
In response to the emergence of the structure of a potential deal between President Biden and Speaker McCarthy, Revolving Door Project Executive Director Jeff Hauser issued the following statement:
“There are three aspects to the substance and coverage of this debate that have been infuriating.”
May 17, 2023
Executive Branch Agencies That Protect Americans From Corporate Abuses Need Robust Funding, Not Cuts
With executive branch agencies under renewed attack as President Biden negotiates with the GOP, we revisit our research on government capacity.
May 10, 2023 | Revolving Door Project Newsletter
The GOP Budget Plan Would Ruin Millions of Lives
There are a lot of things you could say about the GOP’s proposed plan to reduce the deficit. But if we want to be more expansive than just calling it “batshit crazy” and washing our hands of the whole clown show, as we think Biden can and should, then we could point out that the GOP plan is an expression of profound hostility to the idea of a federal government that serves anyone besides war profiteers.
May 03, 2023 | Revolving Door Project Newsletter
On the Debt, Biden Has No Choice But To Make One
On Monday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen shortened the estimate of when the U.S. could default on its debt to as soon as June 1. We’re less than a month out from the so-called X-date: the day that the federal government runs out of cash. President Biden has invited House and Senate leadership to the White House to talk debt this coming Tuesday, with highly uncertain results.
April 19, 2023
KJ Boyle Andrea Beaty Emma Marsano
Anti-MonopolyConsumer ProtectionDepartment of JusticeFTCGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies
To Reverse Decades Of Neglect, Antitrust Agencies Need Robust Budgets
The FTC and the DOJ are still dealing with a deluge of corporate mergers, and still only have capabilities to challenge a handful of those actions each year. Restoring competition in the U.S. economy will require much more than slight increases in funding — these government agencies need monumental budgets to take on entrenched monopolies that have flourished with decades of lax enforcement.
March 01, 2023 | The American Prospect
ClimateConsumer ProtectionCorporate CrackdownExecutive BranchGovernanceGovernment Capacity
Calling Deficit Squawks’ Bluff on Environmental Enforcement
A 38-car train wreck. Toxic chemicals seeping into water and soil, and a black plume rising in the sky. Sick people, sick pets. As the Prospect’s Jarod Facundo wrote last week, the national spotlight remains fixed on the ecological consequences of the February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio.
In the context of this ecological disaster, arguing for a reduced budget for federal investigators, air and water quality testing, and programs that hold polluting corporations accountable for proper cleanup and restitution is sheer madness. But that’s exactly what the current right-wing push for massive government spending cuts in the name of deficit reduction would entail.
February 23, 2023
Bureau of PrisonsCivil Rights DivisionDepartment of JusticeGovernanceGovernment CapacitySpecial Litigation Section
DOJ IN THE NEWS: Mid-February Trends
This piece marks the start of a new biweekly blog series from RDP. Every two weeks, we’ll call out ongoing trends in media coverage of the Justice Department’s focus and priorities, giving context from our past DOJ oversight work as needed, with an eye to the impact of DOJ capacity and resources, as well as alignment with the Biden administration’s professed goals.
January 20, 2023
Thirty Percent of US Attorney's Offices Are Still Without Nominees
More than two years into Joe Biden’s presidency, Biden has nominated 67 people to the 93 offices that compose the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO). After one post-confirmation withdrawal of Marisa Darden, 66 offices or 71 percent currently have nominees to the position; only 60 nominees or 64.5 percent have been fully confirmed to their office.
January 11, 2023 | Revolving Door Project Newsletter
2022 ElectionClimateExecutive BranchGovernanceGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies
Government Spending and its Discontents
We spent October highlighting the perpetual underfunding of most federal departments and agencies, and urging Congress and the Biden administration to use December’s omnibus bill to finally provide them with the money and resources they need. Sadly, while appropriations did increase for FY2023, budgets consistently fell short of what agencies requested. The most jarring example may be the Department of Housing and Development (HUD), whose budget is a whopping $16 billion shy of the requested $77.8 billion. Biden recently announced his goal to cut homelessness by 25 percent in the next two years, but it’s hard to see how even this meager goal will be achieved without a fully funded HUD.
November 03, 2022 | Revolving Door Project Newsletter
DefenseExecutive BranchGovernanceGovernment CapacityLaborRevolving Door
Biden Can Make Change by Fixing Federal Contracting
If the Trumpiest predictions for the midterms come true next week, and Republicans sweep Congress, opportunities for implementing progressive policy priorities – and Biden’s campaign promises – will disproportionately fall to the strategic maneuvering of the executive branch. From climate action to stopping runaway corporate profiteering to defending the working class from exploitation, the executive branch holds immense power with which it can tangibly better the lives of everyday Americans even amidst a sure-to-be-hostile potential Republican-controlled Congress.
October 31, 2022 | The American Prospect
How Governing Can Motivate Politics
An alternate vision for how Democrats could bring the fight to the midterms by taking action in Congress and the White House
October 28, 2022
Ethics in GovernmentGovernment CapacityIndependent AgenciesRight-Wing Media
Hack Watch: Debunking the Big Budget Bogeyman
It seems pretty incontestable that a big part of the media’s job is “informing the public of things they need to know.” Accordingly, the media’s coverage of how the government spends money is a spectacular example of how it fails. Congress has enabled a vacuum of sensible, accessible information about the appropriations bills it’s supposed to pass each year to fund government activity, and the media has not stepped in to fill the void.
October 14, 2022
Hannah Story Brown Timi Iwayemi Fatou Ndiaye
Omnibus Awareness Month in Review
If Congress regularly met its own deadlines, then October—the first month of the fiscal year—would also be the first month when federal agencies could implement their new and improved budgets. Unfortunately, the modern Congress regularly fails to pass an omnibus spending package for the next fiscal year, which bundles several appropriations bills for different parts of the federal government into one whole-of-government budget, by the end of the previous fiscal year. This autumn is no different.
October 05, 2022 | Revolving Door Project Newsletter
Another Eleventh-Hour Stopgap Spending Bill
October means a lot of things in the political world: the end of a fiscal year and the beginning of a new one; SCOTUS returning from a long recess; and, every two years, the final stretch before a general election. If the congressional appropriations process worked as designed, October would also be the month when federal agencies began implementing their new budgets for the next fiscal year. If only things could work so smoothly.