Trump’s New Executive Order on the Civil Service Poses a Grave Corruption Threat

Last week, President Trump issued a new Executive Order that, if implemented, could dramatically change the U.S. federal civil service—and in so doing threatens to subvert one of the most important bulwarks against corruption in all of U.S. law.

First, a quick synopsis of what the order does: Federal civil service laws are complex, but simplifying a bit, the bulk of U.S. civil service positions fall under something called the “competitive service” (also known as the “merit system”), in which hiring is based on competitive examinations administered by the Office of Personnel Management. Furthermore, those holding competitive service positions can only be removed for good cause (that is, they can’t be fired at will), and removals of such officials are reviewable by an independent commission called the Merit Systems Protection Board. Also importantly, those in the competitive service are entitled to union representation. Not all federal positions have these protections; the most senior civil servants are part of a different system (the “Senior Executive Service”), and there are a number of other relatively narrowly drawn exemptions for particular classes of jobs, typically those for which hiring by competitive examination is not practical (the “excepted service”). President Trump’s new Executive Order would shift from the competitive service to the excepted service any position that has “a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character.” If that sounds very broad, it’s because it is. The Executive Order, if implemented, could shift tens of thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands, of federal civil service positions out of the competitive service, thus giving the President the authority to fire the holders of those positions at will, as well as the authority to replace them with political appointees.

It’s not entirely clear whether the new order is legal. The relevant statute does contain a provision that allows the President to create “necessary exceptions” from the merit system insofar as “conditions of good government warrant.” Past presidents have exercised this authority, though to the best of my (limited) knowledge, President Trump’s Executive Order is unprecedented in both the breadth of its coverage and the thinness of its proffered justifications. That might matter, because there are a handful of prior court opinions (though none at the Supreme Court level) that suggest that the President’s authority to exempt positions from the merit system is not unlimited. It’s also not certain whether the Executive Order will ever go into effect. If Joe Biden wins next week’s election, he could reverse the order as soon as he’s inaugurated, and it’s unclear whether the Trump Administration will be able effect any actual reclassifications under the order prior to inauguration day. (The order itself calls on all agencies to prepare a preliminary list of affected positions by inauguration day, but it’s possible that agencies might move faster and reclassify some positions before then.)

For purposes of the present post, I want to put those issues aside. I also will put aside, for now, broader questions of whether the Executive Order would worsen the politicization of federal agencies or undermine their overall quality (themes I’ve explored in other work). Instead, my objective here is to elaborate on why this Executive Order, if implemented, poses such a significant corruption threat. To do that, let’s consider three forms of corruption (or corruption-facilitating practices) that the civil service merit system is meant to constrain, and the impact that this Executive Order would have on each: Continue reading

Can U.S. History Teach Us Anything Useful About the Fight Against Corruption in the Developing World Today?

A little while back I attended a very interesting talk by California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar about a paper of his, co-authored with the political scientists Margaret Levi and Barry Weingast, entitled “Conflict, Institutions, and Public Law: Reflections on Twentieth-Century America as a Developing Country.” It’s a short, provocative paper, well worth reading for a number of reasons, but what I really want to focus on here is less the substance of the paper itself than the broader theme, captured by the paper’s subtitle, that it may be valuable to think about the pre-World War II United States as not so different from modern developing countries. Most relevant for readers of this blog, it may be worth looking to U.S. history (and the history of other developed countries) to better understand the process by which endemic public corruption may be brought under control.

The Cuellar-Levi-Weingast paper itself touches on, but doesn’t really delve into, this issue. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about three features of the historical U.S. struggle against systemic corruption—a struggle that, while certainly not complete, does appear to have successfully transformed the United States from a system where corruption was the norm (with some happy exceptions) to one where integrity is the norm (with some unhappy exceptions). Importantly, each of these three observations casts doubt on prominent claims in the modern debate about fighting corruption in the developing world: Continue reading

Can U.S. Efforts To Fight Vote Buying Offer Lessons for Others?

Vote buying—the practice of providing or promising cash, gifts, jobs, or other things of value to voters to induce them to support a candidate in an election—is illegal in 163 countries, yet it is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem in many parts of the developing world. In Ghana, for example, incumbents distribute outboard motors to fishermen and food to the rural electorate. In the Philippines, politicians distribute cash and plum short-term jobs. In 2015, Nigerian incumbents delivered bags of rice with images of the president ahead of the election. And Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Happy People shows a politician cheerfully delivering dried goods along with musical entertainment to an utterly isolated village of trappers in Siberia (49 minutes into the film). Thus, recent instances of vote buying are more varied than the simple cash for vote exchange; they include awarding patronage jobs and purposefully targeting social spending as a reward for political support.

Vote buying not only distorts the outcomes of elections, but it also hurts the (usually poor) communities where this practice is rampant. It might be tempting to say that at least those who sell their votes receive something from their government, but in fact, once these citizens are bought off, their broader interests are left out of the government’s decision-making process, as the incentive to provide public goods to that group disappears. A study in the Philippines, for example, found that vote buying correlates with lower public investments in health and higher rates of malnourishment in children.

While some commentators occasionally (and condescendingly) suggest that vote buying is a product of non-Western political norms and expectations, this could not be further from the truth. Although wealthy democracies like the United States today experience very little crude vote buying, vote buying in the U.S. was once just as severe as anything we see today in the developing world. In fact, during George Washington’s first campaign for public office in 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget on alcohol in an effort to woo voters to the polls. By the 19th century, cash and food occasionally supplemented the booze, particularly in times of depression. Even as late as 1948, a future president won his senate campaign through vote buying and outright fraud.

Yet while U.S. politics today is certainly not corruption-free (see here, here, and here), it has managed to (mostly) solve the particular problem of vote buying. Does the relative success of certain U.S. efforts hold any lessons for younger democracies? One must always be cautious in drawing lessons from the historical experience of countries like the U.S. for modern postcolonial states, both because the contexts are quite different and because suggesting that other countries can learn from the U.S. experience can sometimes come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the United States’ historical strategy to combat vote buying might be relevant to those countries struggling with the problem today. Let me highlight a few of them: Continue reading