Obama employees, soon to be out of work.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

4,000 Reasons to Think Trump's Power Will Be Restrained

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Four thousand: That’s the number of political appointees President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team will have to pick in the next few months for the government to continue running effectively after President Barack Obama leaves office. The challenge is great for any new administration; it’s especially daunting for a political outsider whose staff, according to the Wall Street Journal, was surprised to hear last week that it would have to replace everyone in the West Wing.

Political appointees are supposed to make the president more powerful. But for Trump, the appointees might have the opposite effect. The Trump team doesn’t have anything like 4,000 qualified loyalists ready to walk into executive branch jobs, the way most presidential campaigns do. To get Republican candidates with relevant executive branch experience, it will have to choose former Bush administration officials. For better or worse, Trump’s presidential agenda is therefore likely to be filtered through mainstream Republican personnel.

The large number of executive appointees makes the U.S. an outlier relative to democracies in the U.K. and Europe, in which a far smaller number of employees turn over when a new government comes to power.

Consider Britain: In addition to the current 22 cabinet ministers and five or six times that many junior ministers, the prime minister gets to appoint about 100 “special advisers” -- almost half of whom work at 10 Downing Street. You read that right. The British government has roughly 5 percent the number of political appointees that the U.S. government does.

There’s a complicated history as to why this is the case. The key is probably that the U.S. declared independence before the 1780s, when the U.K. began the gradual reform of the patronage system known as “the old corruption.” That left the U.S. with a vast patronage system, and comprehensive civil service reform was not passed until 1883. And even when that happened, the president retained the power to choose large numbers of the party faithful as appointees.

The conventional political science view is that having a larger number of political appointees enables the president to have a bigger impact on how the government runs than a prime minister. In the U.K. system and the European systems that resemble it, career civil servants have tremendous power in setting the direction of their ministries. This is, in many ways, government by bureaucracy.

If you’ve ever seen the classic British comedy, “Yes Minister,” you have an inkling of how the structure works. The minister joins a new department and purports to lay down the law. Then, nothing happens. The bureaucracy continues on its merry way.

Having lots of political appointees doesn’t eliminate bureaucratic drift, but in principle it gives the executive greater power to monitor the bureaucracy and push it in the administration’s chosen policy direction.

Most of the time, the conventional wisdom is probably right. If 4,000 Hillary Clinton loyalists were taking office in the first few months of 2017, they would have been able to exert a major influence on the direction of government. That’s why, in most campaigns, there’s significant jostling for who will be in line for what job. The transition team makes the crucial decisions, of course. But it doesn’t usually write on a blank slate.

Thus, plenty of senior Obama administration political appointees had experience at a lower level in Bill Clinton’s administration. The executive branch is an enormously complicated beast, and it’s a lot easier to work in it if you have prior experience.

That’s a major challenge for the Trump transition team. No Republican whose first name wasn’t George and whose last name wasn’t Bush has been president in an astonishing 28 years. That means any Trump appointee who held a prior Republican political appointment basically had to have worked for a Bush as a matter of the mathematics of longevity.

One solution would be for the Trump team to hire mostly people without executive branch experience. They could come from the private sector, from Capitol Hill or from state government.

The problem with hiring too many people direct from the private sector is that it will take them months if not years to figure out how the government works. It’s not like a private corporation, and you don’t get things done the same way. Among other things, political appointees can’t fire most of their employees, who have career civil servant protections. They work for you, but they also don’t work for you.

The problem with hiring too many people who have been working in Congress is that their loyalties will mostly lie with the Congress members who employed them. The transition team would need to be extremely careful to make sure the administration isn’t captured by precisely the Washington interests and ideologies that Trump was elected by opposing.

As for state government, that can provide some relevant experience -- but there’s a big difference between local politics and national politics.

The overwhelming likelihood is that a large number of the 4,000 Trump political appointees will be Bush administration veterans. The Trump administration won’t be identical to the George W. Bush administration. But in terms of the day-to-day running of the executive branch, there may be a whole lot of overlap.

For Democratic critics of Bush, the prospect might at first seem daunting. But considering the alternatives, it might not be the end of the world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net