Over half of the senior positions at the Education, Justice and Homeland Security Departments simply went unfilled. Rather than sending senior nominations to the Senate, the administration recycled nearly 30 acting cabinet secretaries who served more than three times as many days as the acting secretaries of the Obama era. Morale among federal workers declined during Mr. Trump’s presidency, and career officials have given haunting accounts of their efforts to maintain democratic guardrails within agencies.
The future success of the administrative state will require restoring the dignity of public service and the value of policymaking informed by the expertise of career employees. The Biden administration should continue to move quickly to nominate and confirm key positions with experts and experienced, innovative thinkers to rebuild a neglected bureaucracy. They will need to assemble a Justice Department that returns to the tradition of operating independently of the president, revive a hollowed-out State Department where cubicles have been empty for years and staff the government with individuals who want to fulfill its promise rather than throw sand in its gears.
The Trump administration also waged a subterranean campaign against science. The Environmental Protection Agency is at its lowest staffing level in a decade, with scores of research projects stymied by the gutting of federal advisory boards and research committees. The response to the pandemic, which saw Trump administration officials sideline scientists and undermine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and guidelines, made clear the peril of anti-science dogma. Reversing the damage will require reinstituting policymaking processes informed by the best available data, unclouded by political considerations.
The animosity toward data has been particularly insidious in our intelligence agencies, where leaders have been publicly fired for following protocol and pressured to alter intelligence and its conclusions so as not to contradict the president’s public stances. For the sake of our national security, intelligence officials must be empowered to provide independent intelligence and encouraged to speak the truth, even when it proves politically inexpedient.
Through rebuilding the objectivity of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, hiring expert ombudsmen and inspectors general, and restoring the integrity of intelligence, the Biden administration can push back against the politicization of analysis that has plagued recent decision-making. In her recent confirmation hearing, Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, vowed to release a long-withheld report on the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Embodying the Biden administration’s fundamental shift in approach, she said simply, “We will follow the law.”
We are only just beginning to understand the extent to which the past four years have corroded our federal institutions. But they haven’t changed forever. With quick action in the first 100 days and a sustained commitment to science, intelligence and the very notion of service, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris can rebuild a fortified “administrative state” equipped for the 21st century.
Neil Eggleston is an attorney who served as White House counsel to President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017. Alexa Kissinger is an attorney who served as a special assistant to Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, from 2013 to 2015.
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