By James Goodwin, Center for Progressive Reform
Just when it seemed that President Donald Trump was completely immune to accountability for his various abuses of power, impeachment proceedings against him have quickly picked up steam over the last couple weeks.
Laying aside what happens with Trump, it’s significant that it was a whistleblower complaint from a current CIA officer that helped expose the president’s misconduct. (Reports that a second whistleblower, another intelligence official, is preparing to step forward have emerged in recent days.)
Therein lies one of the many important civics lessons to be drawn from the bit of history we’re witnessing: The process to this point has confirmed the value of a high-quality, independent, and professional federal bureaucracy to the effective functioning of our democracy. For starters, while Trump administration political appointees and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are likely to dominate the headlines as this drama plays out, it was ultimately the courageous act of one career public servant that set it in motion. (Depending on the second whistleblower’s identity and actions, it might be another public servant who is responsible for ensuring that the proceedings reach a legitimate conclusion.)
Perhaps more significantly, that the impeachment proceedings have taken on so much momentum is in no small part due to the first whistleblower’s status as a career civil servant and the unique connotations that flow from that status. Over the course of more than a century, the United States has built up a professional, merit-based civil service that is the envy of the world. Conservatives have sought in recent years, with some success, to turn the tide of public opinion against these “bureaucrats.” For the most part, however, Americans tend to hold these public servants in relatively high esteem, recognizing their professionalism and independence. This contrasts particularly with Americans’ views of elected officials and political officers, whom they see as out of touch and overly beholden to wealthy elites.
The upshot is that because the original accusations of wrongdoing stem from a career civil servant – someone the public perceives as an apolitical expert who enjoys independence from the Trump White House – the resulting impeachment inquiry has become imbued with crucial measures of authority, credibility, and legitimacy that it might not otherwise have. These features may help explain why the inquiry has enjoyed significantly broader public support than previous congressional responses to Trump’s other abuses of power.
At the same time, the impeachment proceedings also help to crystalize how misplaced and dangerous the conservative attack on our bureaucracy is. Hardly a day goes by without a conservative policymaker or pundit decrying “unelected bureaucrats” as “unaccountable.” Yet in this instance, it is an individual bureaucrat ensuring accountability of the most politically powerful person in our government. In other words, we have an example of how bureaucrats are essential to enhancing accountability.
Contrary to the conservative rhetoric, civil servants are accountable to the public in at least three ways. First, they operate within a chain of command below elected officials or Senate-confirmed officers. Second, they are professionals at what they do, with the training and experience to enact the policies that our democratically elected officials establish through law and regulation. Third, civil servants are the public. They shop in the same grocery stores as everyone else; they send their kids to the same schools; and they sit and kneel side-by-side with them in the same places of worship. Because they share these myriad life experiences, they are attuned to the genuine needs and concerns of the public in a way that elected officials and political appointees often are not and cannot be, given our current political realities.
The more that conservatives attack the civil service for naked political reasons, the more we risk losing this invaluable form of accountability. For one thing, these attacks will continue to discourage the best and the brightest from pursuing a career in public service. For another, they could further poison the public’s perception of the bureaucracy in a way that completely undermines its institutional legitimacy and credibility. Not only would this undermine the authority of agencies to perform their basic function of implementing the laws that Congress and the president have enacted, it would also unfairly tarnish the credibility of government whistleblowers, thereby discouraging them from serving their uniquely valuable functions as vehicles for ensuring political accountability.
To be sure, for conservatives, these forms of collateral damage are features, not bugs, ones that contribute to their broader campaign to bring about a full “deconstruction of the administrative state.” For everyone else, though, the impeachment proceedings should present an important moment to recognize the tenuous future of our regulatory system. Over the next few months, the bureaucracy will come under sustained political attack by the Trump administration and its corrupt enablers. Now is the time for those of us who care about the essential value of the bureaucracy – not just for ensuring our drinking water is clean, our workplaces are safe, and our banks treat us fairly, though that’s all important, too – but also for the vital role it plays in the effective functioning of our democracy.