As Donald Trump closes in on the Republican presidential nomination, debate over how he would use executive power and checks on it to accomplish his agenda has focused on the courts and Congress.
But neither of those government branches can check the president like “the millions of federal employees who are supposed to work for him,” University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner wrote in a recent New York Times opinion piece.
Recent California history is replete with examples of bureaucracy thwarting the executive.
Consider the newest section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The original 8.4-mile span was built in 5 1/2 years during the Great Depression, ahead of schedule and under budget. The 2.2-mile span that opened in 2013 took nearly that long just to design, 11 years to build and $6.5 billion – more than four times the original cost estimate. And it’s defective.
“It wasn't that the bureaucracy was trying to sabotage the bridge,” said Daniel J.B. Mitchell of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. “The problem is the way in which the government is structured.”
Or consider Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor/politician/real estate mogul with whom Trump is most often compared. In 2010, Schwarzenegger ordered state employees’ salaries withheld to minimum wage until the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed a budget.
The courts said the governor could legally withhold salaries, but Democrat John Chiang, the state controller at the time, pleaded incompetence: The state’s Vietnam-era payroll system, he said, simply didn’t have capacity to handle the job.
When Schwarzenegger entered office in 2003, he promised to “blow up the boxes,” “sweep out the bureaucracy” and make state government more cost-effective and nimble. The administration drew up a detailed reorganization plan. It went nowhere.
Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown launched his own overhaul plan a few years ago to some success. Still, seemingly small obstacles such as finding a common format for employee-time reporting proved challenging.
If government workers disagree with orders they deem foolish or illegal, Posner wrote, they can throw any number of wrenches in the government-project machine. They can delay work, for example, or leak info to the press.
Since The Sacramento Bee launched the State Worker beat, column and blog in 2008, nearly every story about state government waste, fraud or abuse reported here has started with a tip from an employee on the inside. State workers make excellent sources because they’re usually motivated by ethics, conviction that the system has wronged them, or both. And they’re trained to document everything.
Celebrity and force of personality may help you get elected, but it doesn’t help you govern. As Schwarzenegger learned, government isn’t like running a real estate company. The civil service resists change. The art of the deal in government isn’t measured by the bottom line. The worker bees can sting you.
Celebrities, governors and presidents come and go. Government bureaucracy, however, lasts forever.