Rick Perry Shows Why Trump Won't Stop the Bureaucracy

Shrinking the Energy Department would only weaken his power in Washington.

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Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Rick Perry’s chief qualification to be secretary of energy was that he called for the abolition of the department back in 2012. Thursday, at his confirmation hearing, Perry not only flipped but said that, after being briefed on the department’s “vital functions,” he regretted his recommendation.

Behold a case study in why, rhetoric and nominations aside, President-elect Donald Trump can’t bring transformative change to the agencies and departments that make up almost all the executive branch: The gravitational pull of the bureaucracy is just too strong. Even before Trump’s appointees are confirmed, they understand that their relevance and power depend not on dismantling the bodies they run, but on enhancing their power.

This is mostly good news: Incremental change is much better than radical change, both for government and for business. But there is also a dark-ish side to the difficulty of change. Once bureaucracies have a hold, they’re almost impossible to scale back. Even leaving senior jobs empty won’t do the trick, because career bureaucrats are more than capable of rolling ahead on their own authority if there’s no one above them trying to call the shots.

The Perry reversal is so blatant that it sounds funny. Like a candidate caught in a gaffe, 1  he tried to minimize every aspect of his earlier statement. He said it was made not five years ago, when the then-Texas governor was running for president, but “over five years ago” -- the kind of distinction-without-a-difference favored by guilty apologizers the world over. And he used the priceless phrase, “do not reflect my current thinking,” which no human other than a politician has ever used.

Yet Perry’s description of his change of heart is in fact revealing. He reconsidered his views “after being briefed,” Perry said.

Tempting as it is to think so, that doesn’t mean Perry previously had no idea what the Energy Department does. Rather, it means Perry sat down face-to-face with the senior officials in the department, probably both career civil servants and Barack Obama appointees.

At the briefing, Perry would have had no choice but to realize that the people around him were his new constituency. And it’s a big one. The Department of Energy had 14,443 full-time employees as of 2015. It’s not clear how many contract employees the department has now, but in the George W. Bush administration, that number was about 100,000. The department’s budget is $27.9 billion.

The logic of bureaucratic Washington is surprisingly simple. If Perry were to try to dismantle the agency under his direction, he’d face the tooth-and-nail opposition of his employees. Each time he weakened the department, he’d weaken his own power in the government. And if he succeeded, of course, he’d be out of a job.

The same applies to Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education, Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and so forth. To reduce the reach and authority of one’s own agency is to make oneself progressively more irrelevant.

Intentional self-undercutting isn’t what most people would tend to do when placed in charge. Politicians may be cannier about this than civilians like DeVos and Carson, or just more craven. But it would take an enormous degree of ideological commitment to go into work every day and fight against the thousands of people who work for you.

The task of running an agency is made more complicated if you don’t have a staff of senior political appointees who share your ideological objectives. That’s the situation that will be facing essentially all of Trump’s cabinet appointees, because Trump hasn’t yet presented nominees for those less glamorous posts.

The upshot is that in many cases, the agency head will have to start work surrounded by career bureaucrats and perhaps the occasional courtesy holdover from the Obama administration, desperately trying to preserve past accomplishments. That’s going to make change all the more difficult.

As a general matter, it’s a real problem for the U.S. system of government that Trump is moving so slowly to fill government posts. As I’ve written, he’ll probably have to end up relying heavily on veterans of the George W. Bush administration or else on Republican congressional staffers punching above their weight.

But if you think that Trump’s policies might be destructive, the delay in filling senior political appointments may actually be desirable to you.

After all, without political appointees, it’s not as though government agencies grind to a halt. To the contrary, many career bureaucrats see their political masters as drags on their effectiveness. The career employees will simply go about doing their jobs.

On the whole, the career bureaucrats will act to maximize their own power -- which typically means regulating rather than deregulating. The inertia of the Obama administration’s policies will continue to exert force over the direction of regulation until some external shock -- like a Trump appointee’s order -- changes that direction.

What’s more, career bureaucrats tend to skew liberal and Democratic. Many entered their careers as idealists. If they didn’t believe in the power of government, they might’ve sought private sector jobs that pay better.

Ultimately, government works better when it can respond to political change. But when it comes to major bureaucracies, that change is extremely slow. Congress has the capacity to do things much more nimbly, including gutting agencies’ regulatory power. But that’s a story for another day.

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

  1. In case there are kids in the audience, a “gaffe” is what we used to call it when a candidate said something embarrassing that he was really thinking. The term, now archaic, had to be retired after Donald J. Trump’s election to the presidency.

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

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