Don't Drain the Swamp. Use It.

Don't Drain the Swamp. Use It.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Donald Trump won the presidency as a proud outsider. He’d never been elected to public office, and he promised to “drain the swamp” of insiders who’d failed the nation on immigration, trade, health care, and much more. For citizens frustrated with business as usual in Washington, the prospects of a different breed of federal leaders could be exciting — outside-the-Beltway experience, fresh ideas, a willingness to shake things up.

But in the administration’s first few weeks, we’ve also seen the possible downsides of this approach. The new team has had trouble with some of the basic blocking and tackling of governance, reaching a head with President Trump’s executive order on immigration. The development and implementation of this order have been described in various outlets as “incompetent,” “amateurish,” “not-ready-for-primetime,” and worse. 

We should expect administrations to stumble in the early days. There’s a steep learning curve to running the world’s most powerful organization. So they all deserve some slack. But if an administration is deliberately hiring government neophytes across the board, these kinds of spectacles threaten to become a recurring problem, and the consequences could worsen as the administration begins crafting and implementing bigger and bigger initiatives on infrastructure, health care, taxes, and education. 

We recently completed a study that suggests a possible need for more senior officials with more extensive and more varied governing experience. 

In our research, we asked how Trump’s initial picks for senior-level positions compared to the first picks of the last few presidents. We were most interested in the individuals chosen to lead the federal government’s large domestic-policy agencies, e.g. education, transportation, agriculture, and so focused on their experience in full-time, non-military government jobs. Four of our results were both surprising and, we believe, very meaningful.

First, for the 15 positions we studied, Trump appointees have substantially less combined government experience than the first set of confirmed officials for the same positions under Presidents Obama, George W. Bush’s, and Clinton. In fact, Trump’s selections have less than two-thirds the experience of Obama’s and Bush’s. 

Second, six of Trump’s 15 choices have zero full-time government-position experience. By way of comparison, Obama had only one, and Bush and Clinton had two apiece.

Third, in some categories, Trump’s picks actually have comparable, or even more experience. For instance, Trump’s appointees have about the same number of years of gubernatorial experience (22) as Obama’s (23), Bush’s (29), and Clinton’s (17). And Trump’s selections have more years of congressional experience than Obama’s and Bush’s, and more legislative experience than Obama’s, Bush’s, and Clinton’s. 

Fourth — and possibly most importantly — Trump’s appointees have virtually no experience in the government jobs generally associated with implementing policy. These are the positions that typically bring laws and regulations to life and consider up-close how government action affects citizens. Trump’s selections appear to have had little or no mayoral or other state and local experience in this respect, whether senior local-government appointees, local government staff, or senior state-government appointees or staff. Trump’s appointees also have minimal experience working as staff in federal agencies. By contrast, appointees under Obama, Bush, and Clinton had some — often a great deal — of experience in every one of these categories.

To be clear, we don’t believe that it is always a virtue to prize a bevy of government experience or a vice to prioritize private-sector experience. But we do believe that when it comes to public service at the highest levels of government, public-sector experience matters, too. If what we found in these 15 domestic-policy agencies extends to White House staff, foreign policy cabinet positions, and subcabinet jobs across the government, the development and execution of federal action could suffer. Senior leaders must be equipped to understand the federal budget process, how federal agencies interact with state entities, how local agencies navigate federal rules, and any number of other factors key to governing. 

While the White House appointments have prioritized unconventional résumés to date — and the U.S. Senate has advanced those selections through the confirmation process — it may be time for a course correction. 

Those inside the West Wing should remember that the president will be well served by their tapping not just loyalists but also those capable of effectively leading and managing inside the government. As nominations are made for deputy, under, and assistant secretary positions, the Senate should consider whether their experience complements the leaders at the top. 

We all have a collective interest in seeing that federal action is conducted well, whether we love Trump’s agenda or hate it. As the saying goes, personnel is policy — but it’s also performance.

Andy Smarick is Morgridge Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where Kelsey Hamilton is a research assistant.

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