Very recently, the most underreported story of the Trump administration was the systematic dismantling of the federal bureaucracy. It was easy to see why: The relentless torrent of twitter-induced mini-scandals, the Russia investigation, now the flood of sexual misconduct allegations—we are drowning in bad news. So it must be bad when a dispute over who runs a bureau most Americans don’t know exists is headline news.
The situation at the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau would be comical if it weren’t so serious. The CFPB was created by the Dodd-Frank Act after the 2008 Great Recession. It was perhaps the most visible result of the legislation and has since targeted financial malpractice.1 Republicans have been trying to cripple the bureau ever since.2 Last week, President Trump’s successfully installed his Office of Management and Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, as acting CFPB director. It wasn’t easy. The outgoing director appointed by Barack Obama, Richard Cordroy, quit on Friday, November 24th, (he is expected to run for governor of Ohio) and appointed his deputy, Leandra English, to his job. Though the Dodd-Frank Act explicitly gives Cordroy this power, Trump appointed Mulvaney (to his second administration post) to prevent another Democrat, pro-regulation director at the CFPB. For several days, it was unclear if Trump’s gambit would work with both appointees claiming the title of acting director. It wasn’t until Wednesday night, November 28th, that the courts ratified Trump’s appointment.
Given the anti-regulation ideology held by Trump, Mulvaney, and Republicans in general, we should no longer expect the CFPB to fulfill its purpose. In so many other cases under the Trump administration, agencies that have not been neutered have been turned against themselves.
On the Left, there is a tendency to see the dysfunction in the Trump White House as a virtue. There’s some truth to this: For example, a more effective operation might have repealed Obamacare. The lack of political appointees is often cited as evidence of this virtuous dysfunction, especially since Trump’s cabinet nominees have been viewed as extremists. But this apparent ineptitude should alarm us.
Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated that they have no ideological investment in a functioning government. Quite the opposite: When the government fails, it reinforces their arguments for the free-market and against collective social solutions. Given the unpopularity of tax hikes, Republicans seem to be betting that future deficits will continue to constrict the federal government years down the line. Republican policies are destroying the capacities of the state to regulate business, conduct diplomacy, provide social services, or protect the environment all in name of deregulation. And, as Jacob Weisberg suggested, it’s quite possible that when the shoe drops, Republican lawmakers will have already decamped to pro-business lobbying firms and lucrative board memberships.
What is at stake is not just a progressive agenda enacted under the previous president. Rather, the federal government’s ability to enact and enforce domestic and economic policy is being threatened.
State: Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, has undertaken a wholescale “reorganization” of the department. He has been dismissive of career diplomats, assigning them to clerical work. He has refused to fill vacancies, encouraged early retirement, and outright fired senior career diplomats. The building is now described as a ghost town. (It was recently reported that Rex Tillerson may be replaced by Mike Pompeo, who now runs the CIA, and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkasas appointed run the CIA.)
Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt, director of the EPA, denies the climate change is caused by humans. He has restricted scientists from attending conferences and removed research from the EPA website. According to Politico, “Pruitt has rolled back or stalled environmental protections, given the fossil fuel and chemistry industries more sway over public health decisions and taken steps that critics fear will undermine work on pollution cleanups.” The power to interpret how regulatory laws are implemented and enforced gives Pruitt extraordinary power to dismantle decades of environomental progress.
Housing and Urban Development: Ben Carson, erstwhile presidential candidate and Trump surrogate, was rewarded with HUD. He too refused to fill key vacancies and notably oversaw a $7 billion budget cut. Carson called poverty “a state of mind.”
Education: Betsy De Vos, a wealthy Republican donor famous for championing school vouchers, was given the job of running the Department of Education. Her signature policy has been reversing Obama-era rules about how colleges handle sexual assault. Critics fear her preference for vouchers and “school choice” will further undermine an already embattled and underfunded public school system.
In every example, an unqualified leadership team actively undermines the mission of the agency, demoralizes employees, and “cuts the fat” from agencies already lean from the Great Recession. If the rot continues to spread, what will be left of the federal government after the Trump administration?
This future, more than any other legacy of the Trump administration, should terrify us. No other process is as real and lasting—not the vague threat of Russian “collusion”; not the reversal of Obama’s legislative legacy—as the dismantling of the federal bureaucracy. (Though I concede that the nomination of dozens of federal judges is a close second.) Republicans are finally following through on the Reaganite threat to shrink the government until it can be drowned in the bath. Trump’s new budget cuts deeply into social welfare programs to the benefit of military and Homeland Security—a budget overseen by new CFPB director Mick Mulvaney in his capacity as OMB director. It’s not just all guns and no butter. At this rate, the United States will become a rump state with a military on steroids funded by a regressive tax system.3 This sounds a lot like how we describe a failed state.
Successfully against Wells Fargo; less successfully against forced arbitration by credit card companies. ↩
President Trump called it “a total disaster”; Senator Ted Cruz called it an “out of control bureaucracy.” ↩