Meg Jacobs says Donald Trump didn't invent the idea of putting government foes in charge of agencies whose mission they oppose
Ronald Reagan did it extensively -- with mixed results, she writes
Editor’s Note: Meg Jacobs teaches history at Columbia and Princeton. She is the author of a new book, “Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s” (Hill and Wang). Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect that book’s research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Follow her on Twitter @MegJacobs100.
In the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump focused more on politics than policy, but his few policy speeches suggested the direction he would go in if he won the White House. In May, from North Dakota, Trump delivered a major energy speech. If you listened to the whole thing, you would not only have heard that wind turbines are a big environmental hazard because they kill millions of birds, but you would have also fully anticipated that he would pick someone like Scott Pruitt, a committed opponent of the agency, as its head.
At that press conference, Trump denounced the Environmental Protection Agency’s “totalitarian tactics” and promised to slash its “onslaught of regulations.” Standing by his side was Harold Hamm, an oil and gas billionaire who supported Pruitt in his campaign for Oklahoma’s attorney general and for this Cabinet post.
Trump said American fossil fuel would make America great again. Now, with his plans to scrap clean power, build pipelines and cancel the Paris accord, and with the help of someone like Pruitt, he will put that to the test.
Pruitt epitomizes a more general trend evident in Trump’s picks: the choice to name people who are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run.
That is clear in nominees such as Tom Price, the Georgia congressman who has fought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to head of Health and Human Services; or Betsy DeVos, a committed proponent of defunding public education, as education secretary; or Andrew Puzder, fast-food chain magnate and opponent of raising minimum wages, to lead the Labor Department.
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All have established records of fighting to gut regulations and have stated publicly their intentions to thwart what they see as the dangerous and damaging regulatory zeal of their respective agencies. Ben Carson, who has no experience with housing, will bring his conservative anti-welfare ideology to his position as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Saturday Night Live parodied Trump’s choices with a skit showing him picking Walter White, the meth-producing high school teacher of “Breaking Bad,” as the head of the DEA.)
This strategy of selecting appointees who have a fundamental hostility to the mission of the agency they will now head is not new.
The practice goes back to Ronald Reagan, who famously declared in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” On the campaign trail, Reagan had promised to eliminate the departments of education and energy. Once in office, he settled for appointments that would undermine these offices from within, a tactic he used for all his selections.
Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stalled on resolving class-action lawsuits charging racial discrimination in hiring. Attorney General Edwin Meese dropped the pursuit of voting rights violations and instead sought to undo what conservatives saw as the “reverse discrimination” of affirmative action laws.
Reagan named committed deregulators to head the FCC, FTC, and OSHA. While in office, the assistant secretary of HUD, Emanuel Savas, wrote a book called, “Privatizing the Public Sector: How to Shrink Government.” And William Bennett, as education secretary, pushed for a diminished federal role in education. James Edwards, the energy secretary who was the former governor of South Carolina and before that a dentist, promised to “work myself out of a job.”
And then there was the dynamic duo of James Watt as interior secretary and Anne Gorsuch as head of the EPA. Known for wearing fur coats, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and driving a gas-guzzler, Gorsuch promised to slash EPA regulations. She made clear what rules her staff should not enforce.
Watt did the same thing. A darling of the New Right, Watt tried to ban the July 4 performance of the Beach Boys on the National Mall. In regard to the nation’s resources, Watt said it would be open season. Known as the “unenforcer,” he proudly appeared on the Phil Donahue show boasting of his deregulatory success.
All these appointments were backstopped by the budget cuts of OMB’s David Stockman, which led to cuts of money and personnel at the agencies. HUD’s budget shrank by more than half, while EPA lost more than a quarter of its funds and nearly half its staff.
Trump looks like he is taking his cues straight from Reagan’s playbook. And even then some. The president-elect’s appointments are not simply an effort to reward supporters. A master of the media, Trump has managed to make the process riveting to a more general audience, extending the drama and bravado of his campaign.
His transition has been like the equivalent of “Celebrity Apprentice,” with the drama, humiliation and suspense of a season finale. The more outspoken the potential appointments are, the better.
But if Trump is taking his inspiration from Reagan, he should read ahead to the next chapter. In Reagan’s time, this kind of overt hostility led to a countermobilization. Environmental organizations saw their membership numbers skyrocket, these groups filed lawsuits to force compliance, they chased Watt and Gorsuch from office, forcing them to resign amid scandal, and they made their presence known in the following elections.
By the end of Reagan’s time in office, congressional liberals had restored much of EPA’s budget.
Maybe Trump already knows this history. So he is also likely to draw on the lesson from Bush II that what matters is not so much the person at the top but those behind-the-scenes second and third-tier appointments. Bush chose the moderate Christie Todd Whitman to head EPA, but the key person was Jeffrey Holmstead, an energy industry lobbyist who successfully weakened key pollution regulations and could play an off camera role in doing the same under Trump. These staffers know the rules – and they know how to undo them.
With his appointments, Trump is taking the government and policy in a decidedly rightward direction. If he cannot eliminate the Clean Air Act, for example, then he will look to Pruitt to dismantle it from within. By design, these kinds of appointments also undermine the legitimacy of government, using their positions as bully pulpits to further attack the credibility of government action.
It is possible that Trump will go too far. And it is likely that his appointments and their policies will face real pushback. Already, liberal organizations are seeing a rise in their fundraising and membership. But for now, in the battle to roll back government, Trump is the dismantler-in-chief and these are his generals.