Trump reinvents spoils system, undermining coronavirus action

The coronavirus not only has its victims, but it is also a victim.

It suffers from an illness once thought to have been stamped out, but now afflicting the government again.  It was called the “spoils system.”

When Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, he promptly replaced federal government officials with people who were loyal to him.  He followed the rule that he could reshape government because he had won the election: “To the victor belongs the spoils.”

The system produced the desired results for each succeeding president.  It was taken so seriously that one president was assassinated by a man who thought he deserved a federal job.

Finally, the federal government adopted a law that would replace spoils with merit and independence.  Government employees would be selected on the basis of their ability, leaving only a few top jobs to the president’s choice.  Most employees became members of the civil service.

Many government jobs and agencies are not political, but technical, scientific or administrative.  Qualified personnel should work free from political interference, and they cannot be politically active.  Specialized work carried out by professionals benefits the country.

Many politicians understand they benefit from government working competently.  There’s little or no politics in disease prevention or fighting crime.  As a result, a robust civil service and independent agencies have developed.

But just doing a scientific job can become a problem.  Experts are expelled and agencies stripped.  Take climate change and now coronavirus.

It is beyond question that the earth is growing warmer, which has major implications for human activity.  There’s no doubt human beings contribute to the increase in temperature.  To reduce the rate of increase, production must change, and that may increase operating costs.

If a politician’s focus is solely on promoting short-term profits, they may be unhappy with science that suggests higher costs of production.  The professional government scientist must halt research on climate change, because it conflicts with the politics of the day.

Even worse, scientists may lose their jobs, despite civil service protection.  Scientific experts have been pushed out of EPA and not replaced, increasing the ratio of political appointees to professionals as the agency shrinks.  The spoils system returns.

The critics of such science believe that the research follows the scientist’s agenda, not the policy of the elected leader.  Climate change personnel may be dismissed, because recognizing it as a major problem is not consistent with the president’s priorities.

If government employees are seen as pursuing their own beliefs and priorities rather than following the policy of the top elected official, they are charged with being part of the “deep state.”  The independent civil service supposedly becomes a government within a government.

The civil service is transformed into a conspiracy.  “Deep” implies the conspiracy is hidden, when in reality the federal employees conduct their work in the open.  The idea of “state” is that civil servants collectively conspire against the elected government, though there is no evidence of that.

In the effort to deep six the deep state, fighting the coronavirus has suffered.  Trump had the members of the so-called “pandemic response team” fired as well as the top White House expert advocating a comprehensive pandemic policy.  Long-term expertise was lost.

The problem was that the expert staff might make the possibility of serious illness seem more likely, when the administration would want to make it appear remote.  Also, it costs money to be prepared, while the administration cuts the health budget in favor of military spending.

Before Trump’s action, policy had been to develop an agency ready to respond immediately with adequate testing and protective supplies that could control a problem before its spread became impossible to limit.  He preferred to cut their funding and personnel.

Trump chose to wait until the problem appeared and then hoped to recruit emergency responders at universities and corporations.  But he could not be sure they would be willing or able to interrupt their lives or that they would have enough time or resources to respond.

Meanwhile, he minimizes the coronavirus threat, because he dislikes its effect on the stock market.

When it comes to climate change or fighting coronavirus, surviving agencies are headed by “acting” chiefs or political pals opposed to the laws they are supposed to apply, with Trump ready to fire them if they are insufficiently loyal.

The spoils system is back.  Loyalty matters most.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.