January 20, 2017 vs. January 20, 1977

I first met Jimmy Carter in the fall of 1974, at a luncheon in the Smithsonian Castle. I knew no one there, so when I saw a man sitting alone, I quickly slid in across from him.

“I’m Frank Weil,” I said.

“Jimmy Carter.”

“You were governor of Georgia,” I declared, proud of having remembered.

“No, I am governor of Georgia,” he replied.

Luckily Carter forgot or forgave me, and I found myself in Washington on the day of his inauguration, not having a clue what I was doing, but excited at the thought of what could be accomplished in the next four years. I was no worshipper of Carter, but I had a personal reason to be excited. I was not in DC for vacation, but for work. A few days earlier, I had been contacted about a position in the Commerce Department—Assistant Secretary for International Trade—and had accepted.

I had been fascinated by government ever since I was a boy and FDR had been my idol. So when I received the call to serve, I responded eagerly. The problems with American trade, I knew from my years of doing investment deals in Europe, Japan, Israel, and Central America, were numerous. Finally, I thought, I would be able to help fix them.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I was well trained and had significant experience in law and finance, but it took me about a year to even figure out where I was. I had to learn to speak the new language of government jargon, deal with the bizarre internal politics that govern personnel and budget matters, and understand who the players in our administration and foreign governments were, all while giving public addresses three to five times a week. I was still young, even spry, but my three years in government service left me exhausted, with what felt like a permanent case of jet lag.

Forty years later, I think back on my arrival in Washington, and wonder what the incoming presidential appointees must be thinking.

I have known Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Commerce, for over twenty years. Though we differ on trade policy, I reached out a few weeks back and offered to share my perspective on the department that he will soon be running. He politely deflected my offer, and I began to worry for him. Ross is a smart guy, but he is 79 and has no experience in government. He will have to do the same learning I did in my forties (or more!) and it concerns me that he seemed uninterested in hearing a known and experienced perspective on the department

In fact, I suspect that almost all of Trump’s Cabinet will be defeated by the same difficulties that stood in the way of my own attempts to make progress—the culture of incrementalism, the petty feuds between departments, and the lifetime civil servants who look at you with glazed eyes and think “This too shall pass”.

The protections for civil servants are strong. I once tried to fire one civil servant who worked under me, and eighteen months later, surrendered and never tried again. Though Trump and his appointees may want to purge the executive branch to bring in loyalists and cronies, they will likely be largely unsuccessful. The institutional memories of the Federal Triangle will survive a Trump administration, and the unelected men and women who make up the bulk of the federal government will likely do their best to keep the country on track—though they really are apolitical.

Almost all of Trump’s cabinet appointees have either displayed shocking ignorance about areas under the purview of their department (DeVoss, Carson) or openly contradicted the president-elect (Tillerson, Mattis) during the hearings of the last two weeks. It seems likely at the moment that the Trump administration will be too chaotic to be effective and too stubborn to learn.

If there is hope for preventing excessive bad stuff in the next few years, it may come more from the civil servants surrounding Trump’s appointees than anywhere else. They know their departments much better than almost any incoming secretaries and may be able to do more to steer the details of federal policy than Trump’s appointees, who will have to struggle in the sea of civil service molasses into which they are about to dive.

If you think the Republican Congress did a good job at stymying the Obama administration for eight years, keep an eye on the machinations of the cabinet, subcabinet, and the army of civil servants who will surround them during the next four years.

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