Subsidiarity and Trump’s Cabinet

Among the Right’s ongoing concerns about President Trump is his apparent disinterest in federalism and the idea of subsidiarity. We just don’t have much evidence that this administration wants to move power from Washington to states and then relocate as much of it as possible to cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

If anything, the president’s “America First” bellicosity, fandom of sprawling national infrastructure projects, and “I, alone” pronouncements seem to suggest more centralization, not less.

In a new short report, my colleague Kelsey Hamilton and I find another reason for conservatives to worry about the administration’s bent for consolidating authority instead of relinquishing it: Trump’s nominees to lead the federal government’s major domestic-policy agencies appear to have zero experience working in local government and precious little track record of working in the state and federal roles likeliest to impart skepticism of federal power.

Trump’s nominees to lead the federal government’s major domestic-policy agencies appear to have zero experience working in local government and precious little track record of working in the state and federal roles likeliest to impart skepticism of federal power.

We set out to study how Trump’s initial domestic-policy nominees’ résumés compared to the last three presidents’ first appointees to the same posts. In a few areas, we were able to confirm and quantify the convention wisdom — that this president seems to prioritize private-sector experience above public-sector experience.

For instance, Trump’s picks in aggregate have less than two-thirds the years of service in full-time, civilian government positions (our measure of experience) compared to the choices of Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In fact, of the 15 positions we studied, six of Trump’s nominees have no government experience whatsoever. Obama only had once such nominee, and Bush and Clinton had two apiece.

One response might be, “Good! Who needs more career bureaucrats in cabinet posts!” True, it might be the case that, given Uncle Sam’s bumbling over the last decade or so, the federal government could use some leaders with nontraditional backgrounds and fresh perspective.

But it also might be the case that government leadership and management and policy development and implementation are bound to suffer with so many novices at the helm. Only time will tell which forecast holds up—maybe both?—but, at minimum, this aspect of Trump’s hiring is worth ongoing scrutiny.

But more surprising, and possibly far more meaningful, than the relative paucity of government experience among Trump’s selections is the type of government experience they possess—and don’t possess.

Interestingly, they actually have more collective years of congressional service than Obama’s or Bush’s first picks.

Interestingly, they actually have more collective years of congressional service than Obama’s or Bush’s first picks. They also have more collective years of experience in U.S. Senate-confirmed senior federal positions than Bush’s or Clinton’s first picks. The Trump team can certainly hold its own when it comes to familiarity with these repositories of federal oomph.

But, astonishingly, it appears that none of Trump’s choices for these 15 roles have any experience in local government.

none of Trump’s choices for these 15 roles have any experience in local government.

We couldn’t find examples of these individuals having ever served as a mayor or in another locally elected position, having ever been appointed to lead a local-government agency, or having served as staff in one of these entities. By way of comparison, across these categories, we found that Obama’s selections had 30 years of collective experience, Bush’s had 31, and Clinton’s had 29. Moreover, Trump’s picks have never led a state-level agency or served as staff in one of these bodies.

It’s worth wondering how this happened. Perhaps it never occurred to Trump’s team to recruit people with these backgrounds, or maybe they wanted figures with high-profile federal experience. Of maybe local and state leaders didn’t seek senior roles with the administration.

Regardless of why, it did happen; and this reveals something about the value (or lack thereof) the new administration places on certain types of professional experience. But what’s more important is what this portends.

When the administration begins crating initiatives for infrastructure, housing, transportation, and so on, there will be a profound inability among the leaders of these agencies to offer experienced-based arguments for federalism and localism. Who will detail the burdens that federal rules place on state and local governments, explain the presumptuousness and clumsiness of Uncle Sam’s meddling in civil-society activity, and make the case for respecting American pluralism as reflected by its thousands of community bodies?

We might hope that the president’s preference for successful private-sector leaders would lead to non-technocratic policy-making. But Trump appears to have little aversion to a robust federal government, so long as he controls it. Corporate titans who see the value of swift, centralized decisions may very well have sympathy for consolidated government authority. Now, experience as staff in a federal agency might serve to disabuse a future cabinet official of the ability of a big, powerful, Beltway-bound bureaucracy to execute as efficiently as an expansive firm. But the 15 Trump picks we studied have only six years of combined experience in a federal staff role.

Some of President Trump’s early actions — such as choosing Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court or rattling a saber at Iran — may serve to reassure judicial or foreign-policy conservatives. But his choices for domestic-policy cabinet officers do no such thing for those of us committed to distributing authority away from Washington and down to states and communities.

Andy Smarick is Morgridge Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He has worked at the White House, U.S. House of Representatives, a federal agency, a state legislature, and two state-level agencies.