During the 2012 primaries, Republican candidate Rick Perry famously had an “oops” moment when he couldn’t remember that the Department of Energy, DOE, was one of three agencies he planned to close as president. In a move clearly aimed at thumbing a nose or raising a particular finger at the concept of government agencies in general, the man who claimed that he “alone” could fix what so many of his supporters think is ailing the country named the now-former governor to lead the department he once forgot but knew was unnecessary. It played to a sub-segment of the right-wing base who do not understand the inner workings of government but who, nonetheless, see nothing good in it. It led many liberals, many of whom also cannot comprehend such intricacies, to wail about the indiscretion and malice involved. It began, as did other similar finger-waving appointments, much hand-wringing among those who respect good governance. I’m here to alleviate some of those fears but also to break some bad news to those who cheer such divisive and irresponsible nominations.
When some were incredulous over Rick Perry’s nomination, I told them not to worry. I said that Gov. Perry was about to be taken behind vault doors and briefed at very high classification levels about all the things DOE does that no one knows about. I said he would emerge a changed man. During his confirmation hearing now-Secretary Perry said this, “My past statements…do not reflect my current thinking. In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.” I believe him, but if other secretaries are not as open-minded, there is still hope.
When you work in government as a person of action, as I have done, bureaucracy can be infuriating. Its ability to throw up roadblocks to perceived progress is maddening. Civil servants, most of whom are patriots just trying to do their jobs right, are long-term employees who recognize and understand the transient nature of either elected officials or, in my case, military officers. As in any human endeavor, there is security in the status quo. Change is difficult to engineer and even more difficult to execute. Government agencies are rife with regulations and processes that ensure their actions comply with law and protect the interests of the American taxpayer. They are not known for their agility or ability to innovate. When I was a cadet we used to say of one of our sister academies that it harbored “over two hundred years of tradition unhampered by progress.” That is what government bureaucracy feels like when you are attempting change. Yet now, those human and institutional impediments are a buffer against the onslaught of the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as presidential advisor—and false news purveyor—Steve Bannon recently put it.
That “administrative state” maintains clean water, safe food, access to markets, nuclear surety, consumer protections, breathable air, vehicle safety, energy access, and thousands of things that are important to all Americans. Some cabinet members, like Secretary Perry, will confront their long-standing but wholly unsupportable views on the agencies they now lead. Others, and Mr. Bannon, may well find their desire for destruction eventually ground to dust by the very bureaucracy they despise. If so, it will be by the will and principle of those lesser-known but far more deserving servants who have calmly gone about their duty during multiple administrations, be they conservative, liberal, or whatever this one is. Take comfort in that.