Donald Trump lost the election, but he is going down swinging. Aside from him and his party flagrantly attempting to overturn the election through ridiculous lawsuits or conspiracies to throw the votes out entirely, his administration is scrambling to entrench right-wing regulations and install Trump lickspittles throughout the various government departments.
When he takes office, Joe Biden is going to face a government in smoking ruins. He will essentially have to rebuild the federal bureaucracy from scratch if he wants to achieve anything, no matter its political inflection. One hopes he’s ready for the task.
One of the more prophetic books about the Trump era is The Fifth Risk, written by journalist Michael Lewis. Part of the inspiration came when Lewis was laid up in bed recovering from a surgery after Trump won, where “I started thinking about all the different ways he might kill me,” as he told Chris Hayes. Sure enough, when the worst disease pandemic in a century hit, Trump completely botched it, and at least a quarter-million Americans and counting are dead.
That mountain of corpses is due not only to Trump’s unprecedented level of incompetence, but his damage to the government. The federal government does all sorts of things virtually no one knows about to protect the American citizenry — or at least it used to before Trump got there. In 2018, he disbanded a pandemic response team that had been in place since 2015. In 2019, he ended a $200 million pandemic advance warning system. As The Los Angeles Times reports, this latter system had “identified 1,200 different viruses that had the potential to erupt into pandemics, including more than 160 novel coronaviruses.” It also “trained and supported staff in 60 foreign laboratories — including the Wuhan lab that identified SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.”
Despite his occasional heterodox leanings, Trump is incredibly lazy and has staffed his administration mostly with orthodox conservative ideologues. As I and others have previously written, this crew is dedicated to a conception of liberty that is tantamount to believing that the United States should not exist. Thus, as Mark Schmitt writes at The New York Times, these reactionary zealots have been busily tearing up the American state or selling it to interested parties. The USPS, the Department of State, and the EPA are some of many agencies in an especially parlous state. And as his administration draws to a close, Trump is now furiously firing anyone who fights or denies his attempt to steal the election, and his goons have been installing deranged loyalists throughout the government, particularly (and alarmingly) in the Department of Defense.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to explore in detail what Biden might do to clean up this mess, as the federal government is a massive entity with a budget of about $5 trillion and 3 million employees. However, I can suggest two broad principles: First, root out the Trump stooges. Every one of his political appointees should be fired as soon as replacements can be found, and there should be a wide-ranging audit of other employees hired during the last four years. Consistent with civil service rules, Trump loyalists should be removed from the lower ranks where possible.
That raises the issue of the Senate. If Democrats sweep both upcoming runoff elections in Georgia, they will be able to confirm Biden’s nominees and use the Congressional Review Act to invalidate many of Trump’s regulations. But if they don’t, Republicans will remain in control of that body for the next two years and likely longer than that. Mitch McConnell likely will not allow Biden to confirm his preferred nominees to positions that require Senate confirmation if he can help it, and perhaps not any at all. A Supreme Court case from Obama’s term also holds that so long as Congress does not formally recess by holding pro forma sessions, a president cannot do any recess appointments.
However, there is a possible solution here. The Constitution says the president can force a recess if there is a dispute between House and Senate over doing so, which the ruling mentioned. So if the Democratic House loudly recesses itself, then there can be a dispute, President Biden could declare a full recess, and appoint who he wants through the end of the 2022.
That leads me to my second suggestion: Go big and fast. One signature characteristic of the Obama administration was extreme administrative sluggishness. This happened for two reasons. First, because they were terrified of conservative backlash, insiders vetted every nominee to everything to a preposterous degree, which left vacancies open for months or even years. Second, the Obama regulatory team was for many years headed by a corrupt neoliberal who assumed administrative acts could only be a drag on the economy and therefore had to be proved to be a net benefit with elaborate, expensive research. As I wrote at the time, all this pointless paperwork slowed the wheels of government to a crawl.
But one valuable lesson Democrats should learn from Trump here is how much can be accomplished with sheer shameless belligerence. Ask for neither permission nor forgiveness — instead get your people into their jobs by hook or by crook, drown the reactionary hacks on the federal courts with a blizzard of executive orders and administrative rulings, get things up and running fast to establish beneficiaries and put enemies on the back foot, and if you lose a case, change the reasoning slightly and do the same thing again. (This also has the handy property of creating a lot of news so that the professional pearl-clutchers in the media can’t fixate on any one thing.)
It’s hard indeed to imagine Joe Biden doing any of this. But if he cared to accomplish any of his agenda, whether it’s piecemeal reforms or something more aggressive, fixing the broken government is a necessary precondition.