What Happens if Trump Never Fills All Those Empty Positions in the Executive Branch?

Following reports of an unusually chaotic and disorganized transition process, should Americans worry if positions in the executive branch are left vacant?

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Nov 17 2016, 7:00pm

Donald Trump at a rally in Virginia in September. (L. Todd Spencer/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

President-elect Donald Trump is hiring! According to a Washington Post summary of the process, the new president, who has never worked for a government before, needs to figure out who should fill about 3,800 temporary government jobs, many of them obscure, in order to keep the executive branch humming along. It's been a bumpy ride. Not only has Trump not nominated any cabinet members, reports have emerged of the transition team fighting amongst themselves, and as of Wednesday Trump's people hadn't yet contacted many federal agencies, including the State Department and the Pentagon, to go over the nuts and bolts of the handover—a tricky operation even in the best of times.

Part of the problem seems to be that Trump didn't expect to win and therefore may not have given a lot of thought to the nuts and bolts of being president—Trump reportedly didn't know he even had to hire all his own people to work in the West Wing until he visited Barack Obama last week.

To find out how bad is this early confusion at the top of the incoming executive branch is, and what might happen if Trump delays making these hires, I called up Berkeley political science professor Sean Gailmard, who specializes in bureaucratic politics and executive branch structure. Gailmard said even if you aren't a fan of Trump, you probably shouldn't be cheering for lots of human resources fuck-ups inside his government.

VICE: What happens when there are staffing problems in the executive branch of the federal government?
Sean Gailmard: One of the things you see is an erosion of executive capacity and expertise [in] ensuring consistency of programs over time, and ensuring the quality of programs over time. This has actually been going on since the Reagan Administration. The Republican presidents in the 70s and 80s thought, "We need to get another layer of politically responsive people between us and [low-level federal government bureaucrats]," and that's where the short-term political appointments starting really took off under Nixon, and especially under Reagan.

But even if staff turnover has been a problem in recent decades, what are some specific new problems we might see if the executive branch is short-staffed?
First of all, [Trump] will definitely be able to fill all of the secretary spots, and all of the assistant secretary spots, and things like that. Where they're gonna have trouble is when they get to the undersecretary level and they get to something called Schedule C appointments, which are people that are even below that, but are presidential appointees.

What will we see in the coming months if they can't get those slots filled?
In the short run you could have career staff from the agencies kind of step in on an ad-hoc interim basis and manage programs if they really need to be managed.

OK. And in the long term?
There'll just be offices that don't get staffed, programs that don't get run. To some extent, you could say, "It's just memos that don't get written!" but you have someone like the undersecretary of state for analysis of cyberterrorism in Southeast Asia—they have a person who works on that—and if they don't find a person who's qualified to do it, then we just don't have the government doing systematic analysis of that area.

To what extent are these staff members going to be ideological tools Trump will use to execute his political agenda?
It depends a lot on the agency. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), roughly zero. These are people who study weather patterns and climate patterns, and the National Weather Service. They're just collecting data, disseminating information, and providing information to the FAA, airports, and things like that—just garden variety program implementation. The Social Security Administration? They get requests for money, check the eligibility, and cut checks. That's all they do.

And what if these more apolitical administrations have hundreds of empty desks?
Some of those programs are designed to target a specialized group of recipients, like the Railroad Retirement Board. Most people aren't gonna feel that, but people who worked on railroads, and didn't participate in Social Security, if those people don't get their retirement, they're certainly gonna feel it, because they're not gonna have their retirement payments. People in their communities would notice in a secondary sense, because these are people who are without government support that they were promised.

How big can you see the impact of understaffing being?
In cases like that, it's a matter of honoring commitments, and many people won't see it. A few thousand or tens of thousands would see something like that. But if you started sprinkling those across the entire government, people would start to see it.

And what would you say to a small-government advocate who wants to tear these systems down?
It's a matter of, does the executive branch live up to the commitments expressed in law, and passed by Congress over the years?

What if there were gaps in the more overtly political departments like the Department of State? Should Trump's opponents want to see him fail to hire enough people there?
A lot of what these people do in the Department of State is implementing stuff. They write memos, [perform] analysis, and provide information about conditions going on in various parts in the world that could affect the interests of the United States. If you don't have these offices staffed, you just don't have coordination, or information about threats to the interests of the United States in those areas. If there's a corner of the world where a threat begins to materialize, or something that effects the interests of the United States begins to materialize, and that office isn't staffed, then the federal government is not equipped to detect it, and not equipped to format a response to it and deal with it.

In general, what goes through your head when you imagine Donald Trump in charge of all this staffing?
Does he have people who have federal level executive experience? A New York City mayor and a New Jersey governor of questionable ethical standing—although he's now disfavored—these are not the prime time, A-list, varsity team of American government. Are these people really equipped to take over the federal government? That's really not clear. It would make people more comfortable if there were somebody who knew how to make the trains run on time at the federal level.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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