If Trump’s pro-business agenda was thwarted by bureaucrats, his allies have a plan to avoid a repeat

Donald Trump’s major policy initiatives during his term as president were a massive tax cut and a governmentwide effort to cut regulations that he argued cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars and “devastated entire industries.”

Lax oversight of environmental, safety and labor standards, to name three categories, represented a policy pivot that united Trump loyalists and traditional Republicans — the latter of whom were wary of Trump’s erratic style and attacks on free trade and traditional alliances — arguably helped boost the U.S. stock market

The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page, for instance — occasionally skeptical of Trump — in December 2017 lauded Trump’s first year in office as “reining in and rolling back the regulatory state at a pace faster than even Ronald Reagan.”

The Trump era’s signature legislative achievement, a tax-code overhaul that critics say disproportionately benefited large corporations and the wealthiest taxpayers, was enacted that same month.

From the archives (April 2019): Trump’s tax cuts aren’t being felt by American taxpayers, finds Wall Street Journal–NBC poll

Also see (February 2018): Now we know where the tax cut is going: Share buybacks

Plus (March 2018): S&P 500 companies expected to buy back $800 billion of their own shares this year

But advisers to the former president contend the deregulatory push undertaken by his administration could have been far more robust were it not for a federal workforce that was ideologically opposed to the Trump agenda and worked at every turn to sabotage it.

The federal workforce constitutes “a fourth branch of government” that has usurped the powers of the president, Congress and the courts, according to Paul Dans, former chief of staff for Trump’s office of personnel management.

“It’s an amalgamation of powers by people who are completely unanswerable to the will of the people,” Dans told MarketWatch. “They have a permanent foothold in Washington and in essence can’t be removed by anyone.”

Today, Dans is the director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, an effort to recruit and train a new generation of Republican bureaucrats, so that if Trump is reelected in November, he will “have a team of aligned people ready go on Day 1.”

From the archives (September 2023): ‘Project 2025’: Heritage Foundation helms right-wing coalition in drafting playbook to overhaul U.S. government on ‘Day 1’ of next Republican presidency

So far the effort has led more than 7,500 Americans to submit their résumés in hopes of staffing a second Trump administration, and Dans has coordinated a series of online training sessions led by conservatives with federal-government experience.

He is also part of a broader network of Trump-administration veterans who are sounding the alarm regarding the ability of the federal workforce to obstruct policies that offend them.

James Sherk, a former special assistant to Trump, compiled an extensive list of policies he has said were stymied by bureaucrats, including career staff at the Department of Justice’s civil division refusing to work on cases charging Yale University for racial discrimination against Asian Americans and career lawyers at the National Labor Relations Board refusing to draft precedent-altering decisions if they disagreed with the conclusions.

“The president elected through the people has very little say in policy,” Dans said.

The Justice Department declined to comment. NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo told MarketWatch in an email that the agency’s “career staff use their considerable talent and expertise to effectuate our congressional mandate — regardless of who sits in the White House,” and criticized Sherk for “casting unsupported aspersions about these faithful public servants.”

Destroying the administrative state

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said in 2017 that the administration’s goal was nothing less than “the destruction of the administrative state,” as he described the departments, agencies and regulators that implement and enforce the rules governing American economic life.

For Dans and the other activists involved in Project 2025, the stated mission isn’t necessarily to destroy the administrative state but, they say, to make it accountable to the U.S. electorate. “Let’s restore democracy,” Dans said. “Far from attacking it, we’re working to let the people have a say in their own government again.”

To that end, the conservative movement anticipates a Republican White House reinstating a policy known as Schedule F, which would exempt about 50,000 federal workers in policy-determinative positions from civil-services rules that make it difficult to fire workers who resist directives from the president. The “deep state,” Trump, Bannon and allies have called them.

From the archives (November 2023): Trump’s plans for a second term include deportation raids, tariffs and mass firings of career government workers

Trump issued an executive order creating the Schedule F classification for federal workers in the final months of his term, but there was little time for him to leverage the new rule, and President Joe Biden quickly rescinded it after taking office in January 2021.

Democrats, union leaders, public-policy experts and other critics argue Schedule F would impede the performance of government by replacing career experts with inexperienced ideologues and would actually reduce democratic accountability.

 “Increasing the number of political appointees would create a new venue where political polarization would undermine the quality of governance by replacing moderates with extremists,” wrote Georgetown University political scientist Donald Moynihan in a recent analysis for Brookings.

The proposed civil-service approach dovetails with the conservative movement’s strategy in federal court to rein in the power of regulators like the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce standards on greenhouse-gas emissions, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The U.S. Supreme Court, remade by Trump’s three nominees, has struck down numerous regulations put forward by the Biden administration, and the conservative movement’s hope is to accelerate this deregulatory trend by remaking the 2 million–strong federal workforce.

‘Root and branch’

Schedule F could be implemented by executive order but would affect only a small fraction of federal personnel, and the political right wing is eager to see more fundamental changes.

Last year, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, both Republicans, introduced the Public Service Reform Act, which would eliminate the substantial protections unionized federal workers have against being dismissed from their jobs.

The bill would eliminate the Merit Systems Protection Board, one of several agencies that federal workers can appeal to with arguments that they have been wrongfully terminated, and generally make it easier to fire federal workers.

The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 recommendations would go even further, arguing that Congress should reconsider whether federal employees are permitted to form unions, because, unlike in the private sector, there is no threat of the government going out of business to make unions temper their demands for higher pay, greater benefits and job protections.

“When civil-service reform was set up in the late 19th century, only about 10% of workers were protected, and now 99.8% enjoy de facto career tenure,” Heritage’s Dans said.

“This should be a problem for both parties,” he added, but argued that polarization trends mean that the federal workforce is increasingly composed of partisan Democrats.

“This is now a one-party problem,” Dans said. “A conservative coming into the White House is staring down an executive branch fully populated by folks who oppose his agenda.”

Moynihan, the Georgetown political scientist, argues, however, that intentionally politicizing the bureaucracy could be a problem for Americans of all persuasions, as research shows that political appointees tend to be less responsive to Congress and to Freedom of Information Act requests.

“This decline in responsiveness affected both policy-related requests as well as inquiries about constituency service,” Moynihan wrote. “In other words, both elected officials and members of the general public suffer the effects of politicization in terms of lower responsiveness.”

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