Bureaucracy’s Vital Constitutive Role in American Politics

​In 1887, Woodrow Wilson penned a famous essay calling for a new effort devoted to making American government more effective in its day-to-day administration. Modernity, immigration, and technological advancement had caused the pace of change in society and the economy to quicken rapidly, and Wilson argued these developments had overtaken government’s ability to perform its constitutional duties of promoting the general welfare and providing for domestic tranquility. In his words “it [was] getting harder to run a Constitution than to frame one.” Against the backdrop of unprecedented graft and corruption at all levels of government, he called for making its administrative affairs “less unbusinesslike” and more proficient. Thus emerged the development and acceptance of the idea that the expertise of administrative professionals in bureaucratic agencies is essential to the functioning of democratic governance.     

As we watch the formation of the Trump administration, it’s important to remember bureaucracy’s democratic constitutional role, particularly in light of signals from the Trump team that he and his advisers possess hostility and scorn for some of our federal agencies and employees. Examples of this antipathy include 1) appointing Rick Perry to head the Energy Department that he once claimed should be eliminated, 2) appointing Ben Carson to oversee HUD, though he has no professional experience in housing policy, 3) the implied threat of identifying all scientists at the EPA who have been involved in climate change research, and 4) similarly singling out those at Homeland Security and the State Department who’ve been working on anti-extremism programs.  

 ​These actions acknowledge, but potentially undermine, the way in which bureaucrats and agencies help define who we are and what it means to live in a diverse democratic society. Three characteristics help illustrate this point. First, bureaucracy is perhaps the most representative institution in our political system, certainly much more so than Congress, which is still primarily the domain of white males. Simply, bureaucracy “looks” more like America. Second, agencies, like the EPA, embody our existing policies on how to respond to communal challenges. They therefore should be expected to defend their current programs, at least to some degree, from radical encroachment, especially when fundamental rights are at stake, or when minority interests are threatened. Finally, many bureaucrats are professional experts in their fields–scientists, engineers, educators, lawyers, doctors, data analysts, etc.—who we rely on to help us figure out how to make the general statutes passed by Congress operational.  

 ​Demeaning, devaluing, and demoralizing federal agencies and their employees is not what Wilson meant by running our constitution in a “less unbusinesslike” fashion. Protecting our environment, assuring the safety of the drugs we take, our nation’s water supply and our workplaces, safeguarding our national parks, promoting cutting-edge scientific research, and upholding civil rights laws are just a few examples of how our civil servants help constitute the meaning of democracy in America regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. Efforts to undermine this vital role should concern us all.

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