When asked by Tucker Carlson what he would do right now if he were president, Florida governor Ron DeSantis first mentioned that he would restore Trump’s border-enforcement measures and push for E-Verify. Those are wise policies, but the governor’s next point was more fundamental:
Looking at what President Trump had to deal with, you know this bureaucracy of ours — there’s a lot of problems in that. And I think you need to be able to bring accountability to people in the bureaucracy. I mean if Donald Trump is elected president, he tries to do policy, and the bureaucracy tells him to go fly a kite, that’s not representative government. And I think we’ve allowed this to fester for years and years, and I think it’s at the point now where, even if a Republican wins the election, the other party still maintains control of the apparatus of the executive branch. And that can’t be the way this goes. You go in, you [should] have the ability to implement the agenda.
Back in 2019, I noted several high-profile cases in which bureaucrats delayed or even vetoed Trump policies. The most consequential example was probably the administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the annual census. A judge cited the views of “experts at the Census Bureau” in part of his ruling striking down the plan. Perhaps those experts were right, but critics suspected that they exaggerated the problems with the citizenship question in order to block a White House priority. Either way, the power of bureaucrats to make the elected leaders “go fly a kite” is obvious.
It’s unrealistic to expect bureaucrats to exercise that power in a neutral manner. According to a recent NBER working paper, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by about two to one among federal civil servants. The disparity has grown over time, and it is largest in the most senior positions. Intriguingly, government contracts experience greater cost overruns when the procurement officer belongs to a different party than the president. The most likely explanation, according to the paper’s authors, is a lack of enthusiasm in the bureaucracy.
I served in a nonpolitical agency, so my experience was different, but most of my fellow Trump appointees don’t need an econometric model to tell them about bureaucratic recalcitrance. They witnessed it firsthand. Addressing the problem in the future will not be easy, but it’s encouraging that a potential top-tier presidential candidate already considers it a priority.