While the media obsesses about the Russia investigation and other highly confusing and likely forgettable controversies, the Trump administration has been quietly, but efficiently, rolling back regulations. Many of the administration’s executive orders have targeted what is called the “administrative state.”
The term administrative state is not the focus of conspiracy theorists but a concept that predates the Trump administration. The administrative state describes the army of unelected and often long-serving staff in federal agencies. These staffers have been imbued with enormous power not necessarily through a power grab but due to Congress’ chronic vaguery and lack of specificity. The administrative state has filled gaps left by Congress’ failure to give agencies clear direction. When Congress blasts the power of “bureaucrats” they’re almost always indicting themselves for giving agencies too much discretion and too little direction. In Washington, congressional under-reach is actually a bigger problem than executive overreach.
President Trump recently signed three executive orders designed to curtail the power of the unelected representatives in the administrative state. Here is an overview of these three civil service reform executive orders:
1. Making it easier to fire poor performers
The administration correctly notes that firing even poorly performing federal employees can be excruciatingly difficult, which wastes taxpayer funds and frustrates the ability of duly elected representatives to do the peoples’ business. Firing a tenured federal employee can take six months to a year, plus an additional eight months to resolve appeals. Federal employees are 44 times less likely to be fired or laid than private sector employees. Does anyone honestly believe federal employees are 44 times more effective?
The executive order streamlines the process of removing poor performers and makes it more difficult for these employees to unreasonably delay their dismissal.
2. Improved transparency for union contracts
Traditionally, union contracts have been a black box. Taxpayers couldn’t see what was inside. President Trump’s order requires union contracts to be published in a public online database, which will help taxpayers hold elected officials, who help make these agreements possible, accountable.
3. Rolling back “official time” for union officials
Official time allows union officials to essentially conduct union business on the taxpayers’ dime. President Trump’s order directs agencies to cut taxpayer-funded union time by an average of two-thirds. The administration argues this will help prevent union business from interfering with agency operations. Federal employees authorized to act on behalf of unions will be permitted to spend no more than 25 percent of their time on union business. The administration estimates the Social Security Administration could complete 135,000 more retirement applications or 17,000 more disability determinations annually if taxpayer funding for union activities were limited. In total, the administration estimates the order will save $100 million a year.
These orders could have a big impact on the power of the administrative state, which is why unions, in particular, are fighting back. The largest federal worker union, the American Federation of Government Employees, is suing the Trump administration over the official time order, claiming it violates employees’ First Amendment rights. Time will tell whether the taxpayers’ right to not have their money wasted emerges as the higher public good.