Trump, DeSantis and even Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recognize the need to reassert political control.
The emerging question of the 2024 presidential election: Who will slay the federal leviathan? The beast goes by another name—the administrative state—and primary contenders are increasingly placing it front and center in their campaigns.
In his Twitter Spaces launch with Elon Musk, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promised to “reconstitutionalize the executive branch and bring the administrative state to heel.” Democratic candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. began his White House bid by saying he’d “take the CIA and shatter it into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy has a bold proposal to eliminate all civil-service protections for federal employees. And in Donald Trump’s first speeches of the 2024 cycle, he claimed he is better positioned than his opponents to “root out the deep state” in 2025, having learned from his personnel mistakes during his first term.
What was once obscure has become obvious: Presidents today exercise a fraction of the executive-agency control that Franklin D. Roosevelt did when he and Congress created our modern government. The Covid lockdowns encouraged by Anthony Fauci and the recently uncovered coordination between the government and social-media platforms to censor what they arbitrarily deemed “misinformation” are fresh on everyone’s mind. That these bureaucrats pursued their own agenda while Mr. Trump ostensibly had control over them proves that until you fix the administrative state, there’s no guarantee that executive-branch policy will reflect the president’s views.
The problem is that few politicians on the right have more than a surface-level understanding of this issue. Nearly all the scholarship on the administrative state has been done by left-wing academics for left-wing purposes. Most appointees who have served in Republican administrations have been content to get along with the administrative state—tinkering on the margins of policy without trying to change the system. Their dearth of knowledge has led to reform proposals that are often vague, unfeasible and half-baked.
In the modern era, only two teams have attempted to curb the administrative state’s power: Ronald Reagan’s Office of Personnel Management, led by Donald Devine, and Mr. Trump’s Office of Presidential Personnel, led by John McEntee. Both men installed political loyalists among the presidents’ appointees and took major steps to curtail career bureaucrats’ power. Mr. Devine used reduction-in-force exercises—government-speak for layoffs—when employees’ work wasn’t up to snuff. Mr. McEntee began eliminating civil-service protections for policy-making bureaucrats, among other measures. Both men moved the bureaucracy’s culture in the right direction, but because of limited time in office they weren’t able to finish the structural reforms for lasting changes.
The only way the next president can solve the problem for good is to assemble the right team from the beginning. It is necessary but insufficient to fill the executive branch’s roughly 4,000 political positions with appointees committed to the president’s agenda. He needs a White House made up of people with firsthand knowledge of how bureaucratic politics operate and the will to use that knowledge for a system overhaul. It isn’t enough to have competent conservatives. As president you need people who can outsmart the bureaucrats by devising unconventional ways around the obstacles they’ll erect.
There are things these operatives need to know. The first is which positions are critical choke points and which are mostly ceremonial. One must recognize when an agency is a lost cause that should be gutted vs. when it should be restaffed. One must also know which positions require a subject-matter expert vs. a politically aligned appointee who may lack expertise.
Staff must be well-versed in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which can be used to rein in bureaucracy without congressional action. It’s also essential to know how to restructure the management of the White House, which has become its own sprawling bureaucracy of career officials.
In his presidential announcement speech, Mr. Kennedy explained that the joke in Washington is that political appointees are expected to go through the motions—not make waves—and sign off on whatever policy the civil servants produce. His response was straightforward: “I get the joke, but I don’t think it’s funny.”
The next president needs to embrace that mindset and the people who share it.
Mr. Bacon is a senior adviser to the Heritage Foundation’s Presidential Transition Project. He served as White House director of operations for presidential personnel, 2020-21.
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Appeared in the June 1, 2023, print edition as ‘2024 Candidates Run Against the Administrative State’.