At the beginning of Trump’s term, Steve Bannon vowed the administration would “deconstruct the administrative state”. The appointments of Ryan Zinke at Interior, Scott Pruitt at EPA, and Mick Mulvaney at OMB and CFPB were all made with that directive in mind. In addition, the administration purposely did not fill many government posts and the ones they did were staffed by cronies and political hacks. Cabinet members were not allowed to appoint their own staff and those positions were filled by White House selected appointees who were sent to essentially “spy” on the agencies and leave them, at least initially, effectively paralyzed at carrying out their missions. After demanding the resignation of every ambassador, Trump has still yet to fill that position for many important countries.
In addition, Trump immediately instituted a hiring freeze, has attacked public sector unions, and has suspended cost-of-living increases for federal workers. This calculated effort to drive out civil servants has demoralized federal employees and resulted in the reduction of the federal workforce by 17,000 workers.
Trump has already indicated that he is willing to let the shutdown last “for months or even years” and a number of Republicans both inside the administration and out believe that the longer the shutdown goes on, the better. Those include Mulvaney and members of the Freedom Caucus. As one anonymous senior administration official admitted, “many federal agencies are now operating more effectively from the top down on a fraction of their workforce”, adding “we do not want most employees to return, because we are working better without them…Now that we are shut down, not only are we identifying and eliminating much of the sabotage and waste, but we are finally working on the president’s agenda. Wasteful government agencies are fighting for relevance but they will lose. Now is the time to deliver historic change by cutting them down forever.” In other words, the shutdown is an attempt to discover the minimum level of government services that the American public can endure and literally force federal workers to quit and find other jobs by not paying them in a timely manner.
The government shutdown personally benefits Trump and the plutocrats and kleptocrats that support him. The cases involving the emoluments clause and the census citizenship question were temporarily delayed. The FDA is no long inspecting food and the EPA enforcements and inspections are shut down. The shutdown is an excuse to avoid or delay any kind of oversight. The FTC refuses to answer why they allowed telecom companies to sell your location data, blaming the shutdown. William Barr, who auditioned for the role of Attorney General by essentially becoming one of the President’s defense team, initially refused to meet with Democratic Senators until after his confirmation hearing, blaming the shutdown. Of course, Barr had managed to meet with Republican Senators.
On the other hand, powerful business interests are able to ensure that the parts of the federal government they need to continue to make money will remain functioning. The mortgage industry managed to get the IRS to restart its income verification service so that mortgages can still be processed. Native Americans will stop getting health care, seniors may lose their subsidized housing, poor people may go without food when SNAP benefits run out, and hardworking people will have to just cope with not receiving paychecks for their work, but the wheels of crony, kleptocratic capitalism must keep grinding.
In fact, in so many ways, the shutdown is emblematic and the epitome of capital’s approach to labor since the Reagan era began — get as much work out of your employees without paying for it or with promises that they will be compensated sometime in the future. As the public sector unions declared in their so-far unsuccessful suit to get paid during the shutdown, federal employees are “required to work without being paid — that is the essence of involuntary servitude”.
Of course, the corollary of the destruction of the administrative state was the fact that more power would be consolidated by the President and a handful of advisers, as that aforementioned senior official indicated. Bannon may be gone, Zinke and Pruitt may have resigned under a cloud of corruption, but Mulvaney remains as probably the most powerful cabinet member standing, filling the role of OMB Director, CFPB Director, and Chief of Staff. Both Pruitt and Zinke have been replaced by acting Secretaries who have not been vetted by the Senate. Trump has already tried to use the shutdown as an excuse to declare a national emergency in a pretty blatant power grab.
The country is still operating under the illusion that Trump’s is just a minor aberration from a “normal’ presidency. There is substantial suspicion and evidence that he is actually a Russian agent. Assuming that is the case, what incentive is there for him to actually end the shutdown, especially when a significant number of Republicans support him in the effort to deconstruct the administrative state. And with Coast Guard and TSA employees not getting paid, our country’s security is weakened, creating another opportunity for Trump to declare an emergency and seize more power. As the country lurches deeper into political and economic crisis and Trump’s crimes become increasingly exposed, his desire to abrogate even more power will only increase. Will the already compromised GOP stand up to him?
Originally published at thesoundings.com on January 15, 2019.