MCCOTTER: Reclaiming Everyone’s Republic: Term-Limit the Bureaucrats

During his brief, youthful stint in the federal bureaucracy, my friend, the Learned One, had risen into the rarified air of a level GS-13 employee. Asked why he didn’t stay and ascend to the acme of the bureaucracy, he bluntly stated: “I couldn’t wait to get out of the federal government.” This is one of the many reasons why he is the Learned One. Regrettably, not everyone is so blessed.

One of the Republican populist movement’s prominent planks remains term limits for elected officials. Yet, the Right’s singular focus on term-limiting government officials, who are by constitutional design and dictate accountable to the electorate, has obscured a more pressing problem. Specifically, by diminishing the power delegated to their publicly elected government servants, term-limits has increased the power of government bureaucrats, who are not directly – and, in current practice, almost wholly – unaccountable to the public.

Inherent in the Left’s elitist view of government by “experts,” the bureaucracy’s unaccountability is a core component of the administrative state’s power. It empowers the administrative state to impose upon the Americans the Left’s radical policies, which would never be accepted and implemented by the majority of voters. Perhaps not surprisingly, this undemocratic lack of accountability was heralded as a key goal of civil service “reform,” specifically aimed at removing “politics” out of the bureaucracy.

The glaring flaw in this “reform” was the failure to realize that a person’s “politics” do not terminate when they become a bureaucrat. Indeed, in a free republic, no one should reasonably expect to be compelled to jettison their deeply held political beliefs as a condition to work in the government bureaucracy. How then to prevent political pressures from without or within to influence the bureaucracy’s policies and practices?

At the outset of civil service reform, positions were made as ministerial as possible, with a handful of positions granted limited discretionary power to ensure the bureaucracy could pursue and attain the policy goals expressed by elected officials through statutes. By circumscribing bureaucrats’ powers to specific ministerial duties, it was assumed their personal political beliefs would have few opportunities to be injected into public policy. In sum, the bureaucracy would remain within the control of the elected officials who sired it.

But over time, the monster turned on Dr. Frankenstein. As elected officials and the public who empowered them expanded the size and scope of government, the bureaucracy necessary to attain these aims grew, as well. This entailed the expansion within the bureaucracy of not only ministerial positions, but also those of discretionary positions – i.e., policy making ones. As these discretionary positions and their powers increased, elected officials’ power over the administrative state decreased, ultimately devolving into impotence.

Well, at least for the Republican legislators, it did. The rise of public employee unions constituted fertile ground for Democrats, the party of government and, ergo, its employees. The ascendancy of the administrative state was cemented through an alliance between Democrats and public employee unions, which ineluctably led to further legislative delegations to expand the Left’s bureaucracy/voter base. Over time, the past became prologue as numerous public service positions became sinecures, and politics – albeit on behalf of only one party now – returned. What has not returned is the public’s ability to control an unaccountable bureaucracy.

As a seasoned activists for dismantling the administrative state explained to me:
“When a GS-14 has more power over national policy than a three-star general or a deputy secretary, we have a problem. And that’s exactly where we are now. There’s no accountability for the bureaucrats, who run circles around their bosses or complain to the liberal media their bosses are playing politics. And too many elected and appointed officials are afraid of bad press or else want to be loved by the very bureaucrats who are the problem – see FBI Director Chris Wray – and become cheerleaders for the bureaucracy instead of cleaning house.” 

The activist also related some of the myriad tactics used by the bureaucracy to protect their turf, perks, and usurped policy powers:
“Career bureaucrats reject public accountability, and quickly learn how to thwart the will of the American people. The senior career SES and GS level bureaucrats know they’ll be there long after the politically appointed officials and military leaders are gone. They control policy either by the ‘circular file’ method in which policy priorities they disagree with get bogged down in process purgatory. Or, especially when Republicans are in charge of the agencies, these bureaucrats leak and complain to The New York Times and Washington Post that the agencies are being ‘politicized.’”

Yet, the reason for elections is so the public, through their elected officials, can determine public policy. The bureaucracy is there to implement these policies, which an election has validated with the consent of the governed. The bureaucracy doesn’t get to have its own policy. In fact, the bureaucracy’s powers are a secondary delegation of the public’s sovereign power, granted from the powers vested in the President and/or Congress. The administrative state disagrees, and crafts its own policy and implements it without public accountability as if it were a constitutionally enumerated fourth separate and equal branch of government.

For the Left, this is considered not a problem but a solution. If Democrats had to vote on many of their favored radical policies and expenditures, the electorate would never give them a majority. Thus, just as with activist judges, Democratic elected officials appreciate the administrative state’s bureaucrats doing the dirty work for them. With one party allied with them, the administrative state is almost wholly unmoored from accountability, able to frustrate attempts by the GOP to try and rein it in.
Consequently, it is regrettably how a significant number of the Republican and/or populist base are unwittingly bent upon making it harder to dismantle the administrative state by supporting term-limits for elected officials.

One of the keys tactics the administrative state uses against its opponents is to leverage the fact that elected officials must… Get elected in the first place. Bureaucrats do not. To wit: the most egregious instance of such a malevolent leveraging was Russia-gate, utilized against the duly-elected President Trump who, among numerous policy objectives opposed by the Left, sought to dismantle the administrative state. Thus, the administrative state has revealed what most threatens them: committed elected officials supported by the public bent upon reform and reducing the size of government. And, clearly, they will stop at nothing to survive.

In the instance Mr. Trump, though he was president, he was still just one individual. What is needed is a host of experienced, reform-minded elected officials in the legislature to truly oversee and cast the hard votes necessary to bring the administrative state to heel. This necessarily entails the public support born of seniority within the legislative branch. While term-limit supporters assert the chimeric claim that “unaccountability to the public” will make elected officials more accountable to the public, this is demonstrably mistaken. Worse, sending nothing but newbie legislators without the experience to understand how administrative state operates; without the policy knowledge required to dismantle it; and without the established public support to do it will inevitably lead to failure. There will be a slew of mini-Russia-gates: leaked smears to a colluding media, faux investigations, show trials, etc. Only a long-established relationship with one’s constituents can possibly allow the elected official to make the hard decisions and actions to accomplish the administrative state’s dismantling.

And this dismantling will take time. The administrative state wasn’t born in a day; and many a hard day’s night will be required to raze it. In pursuing this critically necessary goal, one of the worst things that can happen is to change one’s legislative horses in mid-stream. Not only can one be certain that the next elected official will have the experience, let alone the desire to do the job; one may well wind up with an ally of the administrative state. And this will be made more possible by term-limits.

In taking on the administrative state, the converse is required: namely, it is time to term-limit senior level, discretionary bureaucrats. How high up and how many years bureaucrats can serve can be determined, as would how these positions would be filled. This would not unduly hinder the performance of the ministerial bureaucrats; but it would curtail the power of discretionary bureaucrats, who make public policy with minimal to zero public accountability. While the extent of this proposal is ambitious, term-limiting administrative state discretionary bureaucrats is not a novel concept – for example, the F.B.I. Director is term-limited (which may only be a start to the reforms needed for the bureau).

Term-limiting the administrative state’s discretionary policy-making elitists is a critical reform to restoring public accountability over and curbing the power of the administrative state. It is a reform that will shatter one of the pillars of the Left’s strategy to circumvent the electorate and impose its radical agenda on America; compel Democratic elected officials to actually vote upon their radical policies and make them more accountable to the voters. So doing, term-limiting bureaucrats will speed the dismantling of the administrative state and hasten the day we reclaim everyone’s republic.

Of course, many will continue to support term-limiting elected officials. It is your right. But consider this modest proposal. Before term-limiting publicly accountable elected officials, how about first term-limit publicly unaccountable bureaucrats. For those wags who argue, “let’s do both!”, the administrative state thanks you for your unwitting support.

Perhaps those 87,000 new IRS agents will audit you last?

A Human Events contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Radio Show," among sundry media appearances.


Image: Title: Term Limits


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