Under the Trump administration, the agencies and processes of the federal bureaucracy—i.e. the “Administrative State”—have been targeted for deconstruction and reorganization. In this episode of Policy Outsider, Rockefeller Institute Fellow and Professor at Daemen College Lisa Parshall discusses the Trump administration’s approach to governing, include how presidents have limited the power and scale of the federal bureaucracy and how this administration has challenged presidential and administrative norms.


Lisa Parshall, Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government and Professor of Political Science, Daemen College

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 0:05

    The administrative state is systematically becoming undone and public faith in government institutions is eroding. Though the Trump Administration often violates presidential and administrative norms, he is not the first president to engage in such behavior. This is Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. Today we have Rockefeller Institute fellow and political science professor Lisa Parshall to discuss her upcoming book on Trump and the deconstruction of the administrative state, leading some to ask whether or not the federal bureaucracy can withstand more deconstruction. A quick note before we begin, this conversation was held over Zoom, the video teleconference software, so please bear with us through any sound issues as it does not distract from a great conversation. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse 1:12

    I’m here with Dr. Lisa Parshall, fellow at the Rockefeller Institute and professor of political science at Daemen College in Amherst, New York. Lisa is joining us today to talk about her forthcoming book on the Trump presidency and the deconstruction of the administrative state. Lisa, thanks for joining us today.

    Lisa Parshall 1:29

    Thank you for having me, Alex.

    Alexander Morse 1:30

    Of course. So the full title of this upcoming book is Directing the Whirlwind: The Trump Presidency and the Deconstruction of the Administrative State. It is due for release at the end of October and you coauthored this book with Jim Twombly of Elmira College in New York. We just wanted to jump right into it and start off with what is the administrative state? What does that refer to? What does it mean? And what made you and Jim pursue this research topic?

    Lisa Parshall 1:59

    Sure. The administrative state generally refers to the federal bureaucracy. It’s the agencies, the people, the processes of the executive department staffed primarily by career professionals. Effectively, it’s the bureaucratic apparatus of the federal government. What made us interested in this project is we both teach public policy and public administration, so the project really emerged with our shared frustration as undergraduate educators that existing textbooks and treatments of the administrative state and public administration typically rely on pretty traditional frames and approaches, and they weren’t really keeping pace with the real-time political developments. Trump campaigned and won on a platform as his then campaign strategist, Steve Bannon, called it the deconstruction of the administrative state and that’s been a major part of his presidential agenda. A lot of what we were seeing in his early presidency challenged or didn’t really fit existing academic frames for understanding bureaucratic politics. So in teaching our courses, we started cataloging for our students the different manifestations of Trump’s agenda as they played out. What we saw is that some of what was happening was quite extraordinary but also somewhat below the general public’s radar.

    Alexander Morse 3:10

    What are some examples of that?

    Lisa Parshall 3:11

    In some ways, what we find is that scholars are a little bit mixed in their assessment of Trump’s record in terms of administrative management, with scholars ranging across the board from saying its administrative politics as usual, to those saying it’s an existential threat to democracy. What we tried to do is look holistically at the different facets of what Trump was doing. We found that in some ways, his presidency is fairly normal administrative politics. We look at his attempts to deregulate and rollback regulations. We looked at how he’s pursued anti-administrativism through the courts. And we’ve looked at his efforts to reorganize the bureaucracy. We found that in some ways, it’s mixed and even below expectations maybe in what he’s been able to accomplish. Given other facets, like pursuing anti-administrativism through the courts, in particularly in staffing and appointment and attacking and delegitimizing administrative power, we found that it’s quite extraordinary. His efforts are really multifaceted and you really have to look at them cumulatively. That was part of the issue, too, is that scholars look at different facets of the Trump presidency and his relationship with the administrative state and they’re seeing different things because in some ways, he fits against the usual yardsticks, he’s not that remarkable, but in other ways you need a whole new yardstick just to understand what he’s doing.

    Alexander Morse 4:36

    You mentioned that Trump is kind of unique in the effort to deconstruct the administrative state. What are some other differing ideological views with policy with respect to the administrative state?

    Lisa Parshall 4:48

    Well, I think it’s important to recognize that at the outset, all presidents struggle to control the bureaucracy and that’s a paradox of the modern presidency. You have this very powerful office, but presidents come into power and they inherit a federal administrative state that’s full of career professionals, agency experts, institutional actors that they have longevity that outlast the president. They often have interests that are independent of his. So all presidents to some degree, they try to control the bureaucracy through presidential administrativism or directive control. They are also very highly dependent upon the federal bureaucracy in order to effectively govern and to advance their agenda. So all presidents really want an administrative state that is both competent and responsive. I think where Trump is different is that his focus on dismantling has made him somewhat unique. Unique in that more than any other president, he’s really attacked the basic legitimacy of bureaucratic power. He’s really presented it and recast it almost as an enemy of presidential power and therefore an enemy of the people. And again, he’s done this in some ways, using some of the traditional tools of presidential control. Although we argue somewhat less ironically, effectively than past presidents, but he’s also used it more aggressively. There’s been no other president who has been as forceful or as pointed in discrediting the federal bureaucracy, sidelining experts/agency heads, or portraying the administrative state to use his metaphor as “the shadowy Deep State” or his metaphor of “the swamp” to portray it as an enemy of the people or an undemocratic institution.

    Alexander Morse 6:24

    He’s definitely been combative with his own administration at times. Focusing on dismantling aspects of it. His very first executive order was aimed at regulatory rollback. Could you elaborate a little bit more on what that was?

    Lisa Parshall 6:40

    Absolutely. His Executive Order 13771 was his first executive action. It was aimed at exactly regulatory rollback, it was the so called two-for-one rule, which says that for every new regulation that’s enacted, the existing ones will have to be eliminated. He came right out of the gate with this goal of deregulation, of reducing the number and the scope of federal regulations. He’s quite extensively relied since on executive orders to accomplish these goals, again, with a little bit of mixed results. We looked to reduce the flow of new regulations. He’s also directed the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, when they analyze the costs and benefits, to focus increasingly on the cost over the benefits of regulation. On certain policy issues like the environment, it’s been quite impactful these regulatory rollbacks. But overall, he hasn’t really been able to reduce the stock of regulations. We also would point out that what is done by executive action can also be undone by the next president through executive action. And then, many of his efforts of deregulation have met with resistance in the lower federal courts for failure to follow the Administrative Procedure Act. It’s that kind of lack of governing experience and the failure to comply with the processes that has caused some of his deregulatory efforts to stall in the courts.

    Alexander Morse 8:01

    It’s always interesting to see that in the headlines, courts reject XYZ, but it’s not necessarily understood as to why it’s I didn’t know it was the Administrative Procedure Act.

    Lisa Parshall 8:12

    It is. It’s this failure to run around the bases and to do due diligence with legislative findings. People often don’t understand to enact a regulation requires a process of public comment and review, a rationale, and deregulating requires the same. So when the Trump Administration pushes too aggressively on this and too fast, lower courts have found his record is actually quite dismal in some areas of deregulation. With that said though, environmentalists certainly would say his deregulation of environmental rules has had a tremendous impact in a very short period of time.

    Alexander Morse 8:49

    So sticking with executive orders, I’m aware that President Trump is currently setting a faster pace than the previous five presidents. What are some other examples that you cite in the book of Trump using executive orders to reorganize the federal government?

    Lisa Parshall 9:07

    Another early executive order of the president in March 2017 was number 13781. That directed the Office of the Management and Budget to create a plan to reorganize the federal government. This is another traditional tool of presidential control. Here again, we would say Trump doesn’t seem particularly effective. First, he forwent getting congressional authorization, preferring executive action. And second, he hasn’t relied on agency expertise. It’s somewhat ironic that you need government expertise to help you reform or dismantle the government. It actually isn’t that hard, Alex, to find support for the idea that the government or civil service needs to be reformed. But rather than relying on agency expertise, or academic experts, this is one of the many agenda items that he gave to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has no governing experience and of course had a full plate. But I think back to other presidential reorganization efforts, where you had gold star committees of academic and governing experts, and that’s certainly been lacking here.

    Alexander Morse 10:12

    It’s like he’s trying to shoot from the hip. He just comes up with an idea and just says, “Get it done,” without thinking about what is required to actually get it done.

    Lisa Parshall 10:20

    Yes, and again, as I said, it’s somewhat ironic that you really do need government experts to help you regulate and manage within your own government body. I know you had asked little bit about what was the goal of reorganization and, ostensibly, its efficiency and fiscal accountability. And again, those aren’t new ideas. That goes back to past conservative presidents, and his vehicle for reorganization, the Office of American Innovation, it really followed earlier models of privatizing and contracting out to make government services more efficient. Some scholars, of course, argue that hollows out the administrative state, but so far, in the first term, there was no major restructuring. It didn’t get off the ground. Trump had specifically targeted a number of 19 federal agencies for total elimination, and they still exist. I think this is one area that if there’s a second term, we might see some progress. But I think a lot of the leverage on that’s been lost.

    Alexander Morse 11:16

    How does this action and related actions under this current administration compared to other past presidents, I know you said that you need a whole new yardstick?

    Lisa Parshall 11:24

    Yes, when we move into other avenues or methods of presidential control, where I think Trump has been more successful than past conservative presidents has really been with one advancing anti-administrativism through the courts. And that’s something that he didn’t initiate that actually predated him. But he has through judicial appointments put more justices, including two Supreme Court justices so far, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, who endorse doctrines that would limit agency discretion. Political scientists try to find patterns and where we see him not particularly fitting well into existing frames is his management style, which is chaotic. The Trump Administration has a high degree of vacancies and turnover. He also has the habit of appointing agency heads whose experiences and careers are antithetical to the agencies they’ve been tasked to lead. And then, as I mentioned earlier, I think just in his rhetoric, attacking bureaucrats, silencing scientists, that there’s been no other president who’s been as aggressive in his rhetorical attacks on bureaucrats and bureaucratic expertise. Then I would also add to that, more than any other president, we always expect presidents in making high level appointments, they make political appointments who are ideologically consistent with their particular views, but this president has, I think, changed the expectation. Presidents typically want a responsive bureaucracy. He wants one that is personally loyal to him. And so, I think we’ve seen more through his use of appointments at high level political appointees. There’s an expectation there that their first loyalty is not to agency mission but to the president himself.

    Alexander Morse 13:29

    What kind of fallout could you expect as we move forward, if we keep dismantling this bureaucracy? If we keep attacking these agencies or leaving these vacancies open?

    Lisa Parshall 13:39

    Well, I would say there’s two. The first is that, in a very basic sense, demoralizing, destaffing, defunding means that it is difficult for the agencies to respond and fulfill their mission. If you look at assessments of the State Department, for example, you can see that some folks have said we’ve reached a critical point where this agency’s ability to respond to a crisis or to fulfill its function has been jeopardized through the chaotic management, the turnover, in the demoralization of career professionals, and Trump has certainly had almost a war with his national intelligence community. The other more broad concern of democratic theorists is that thinking about the bureaucracy as almost a fourth branch of government, that it provides stability and continuity across presidential administrations, that it is a check on presidential abuses or overreach of presidential power. Some democratic theorists feel that this fundamental undermining of the root and branch of administrative legitimacy is actually creating a threat to the healthy functioning of American institutions. Trump has, I wouldn’t say that he has coherently invoked the unitary theory of the presidency across all policy domains, but he certainly, I think, has latched on to the preexisting theory of the unitary presidency, to extend presidential directive control over his bureaucracy. Democratic theorists would say that is potentially dangerous once the bureaucracy becomes a tool of the executive, it no longer serves as a check within the separation of powers.

    Alexander Morse 15:27

    I just want to clarify what you just said. When you say democratic theorists it’s a small “d” in democratic, right, like democracy?

    Lisa Parshall 15:35

    Yes, so a democratic theorist study the health and functioning of democracy. They’ve been looking at this democratic backsliding as a worldwide phenomenon. One of the measures or metrics or areas of concern of democratic backsliding is executive control of the bureaucracy.

    Alexander Morse 15:54

    And that’s the unitary theory that you just mentioned?

    Lisa Parshall 15:57

    They’re a little different. The unitary theory is a theory of interpretation of the US Constitution that basically says that the Constitution investing of executive authority in the president means that the president is the unilateral actor of exercising executive powers and so that all executive agencies answer directly to him. The idea of democratic backsliding is a little bit broader. When, again, democratic scholars and theorists look at the health and the functioning of democracies, one of the things that is concerning is when you start to see institutional dysfunction, whether that’s in the courts or in the administrative state, but that attacking of the administrative powers legitimacy, the attacking of the bureaucracy, that is something that sends up warning flags that has caused some scholars to say, “Trump’s agenda here poses an existential threat to American democracy.”

    Alexander Morse 16:57

    Following up on that idea of the threat to American democracy, you mentioned earlier, when you’re dismantling the bureaucracy and you’re attacking its legitimacy, it hampers its ability to respond to crises. And we’re in the middle of so many crises all at once. We’re in a global pandemic with COVID-19. There’s the racial justice movements and protests that are happening all across the country. We’re always facing down climate change. So how can we better understand these ideas of the administrative state while trying to deal with these crises?

    Lisa Parshall 17:29

    As we were writing the book, and again we were looking cumulatively, what are the different manifestations of his agenda and how are they working, succeeding, or not succeeding? As we were writing the book, we have the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial protests in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And as you mentioned, there’s many others we could have added to that list. But those two in particular really starkly revealed for us what is really a major limitation to this deconstruction agenda and that is to effectively govern to respond to a crisis, presidents need bureaucratic and agency expertise. They need to rely on their bureaucracy. You can’t effectively fight a pandemic, for example, with a hollowed out demoralized or dysfunctional CDC. And ultimately, the president or his party will pay the price for failures of governance. A second lesson, I think, is that we also saw another facet of the American political system that we don’t often think of in terms of an impediment to presidential control bureaucracy, but that’s federalism. The federal government really needs the cooperation of states and local governments, they’re going to be at the forefront of policy implementation. So in responding to the pandemic, for example, you really need state and local government cooperation. So with both COVID and the civil protests, we saw, under the Trump Administration, a lot of conflict and tension between the president and between the states, and between the president and localities. So federalism and crises then present very real barriers to presidential administrativism. You can’t control the states and he’s reliant on state and local actors and experts to effectively manage.

    Alexander Morse 19:15

    How has that been working out for the last eight months?

    Lisa Parshall 19:18

    Well, it’s certainly been an interesting time, I think, for IGR scholars. I almost feel like when we watch the news, we’re getting a master class in federalism and how federalism works. In both crises, states are hugely significant. They’re the implementers of policy of both state and federal policy. They’re at the forefront of the actual battle over the pandemic and protecting people and highly successful responses are really highly dependent on cooperation with state and local governments. And I would also say, Alex, vice versa. There are things that state and local governments need from the federal government to effectively navigate crises at this scale. They need federal expertise, they need leadership, they need fiscal support, and a nationalized response to issues that, quite frankly, are going to exceed state and local capacity.

    Alexander Morse 20:09

    So what has the impact on states and localities been?

    Lisa Parshall 20:13

    It’s been significant, both of these crises, the states and local governments have really been struggling. And of course, the pandemic has triggered a recession. So we see that we can expect states and municipalities are going to be looking at a dire next couple of years. And again, they’re looking to the federal government for assistance. As you know, we had a first round of federal assistance through the Cares Act and related acts. But that second round now is currently stalled.

    Alexander Morse 20:43

    So it stands to figure that the candidates in the 2020 election have differing opinions on how to address federalism and the crises and relief for states across the country.

    Lisa Parshall 20:54

    Absolutely. And I mean, I think that’s one of the things in our book comes right up to the cusp of the 2020 election. We think that, again, that’s one of the facets of consideration that voters should be thinking about is the successful ability to govern and to effectively manage governance requires effective leadership over the federal bureaucracy. This is one of the, I think, criteria or data points that people might want to be thinking about when they cast their vote. But as we were saying, what happens in bureaucratic politics is often below the public radar. So you get some really good coverage of this through journalism. There are some good outlets that focus on government operations pretty regularly. But for a lot of people in the American public, administrative state like federalism, they’re so ubiquitous, we don’t even see them or notice them until they start not functioning well. Another aspect of federalism that is really interesting to talk about, you were asking about the impact on states, I think this is really an interesting moment for federalism and intergovernmental relations scholars, we’re in this period that is often referred to as fend-for-yourself federalism.

    Alexander Morse 22:05

    What is that?

    Lisa Parshall 22:06

    That’s a term that we use to describe the current affairs of relations between the federal government and the states and also between the states and their localities. The idea is that the federal government has a sometimes cooperative, sometimes conflictual relationship with the states. When the federal government either contracts or pulls back into policy area, or there’s a failure at the federal level, for example, that creates pressures on the state. And those pressures may not be accompanied by federal assistance and financial support. And that leaves the states feeling like they have to fend for themselves. Then of course, states push that pain downward to their local communities as well. There’s been a real exacerbation of that, I think, with both of these recent crises, where in the absence of failed leadership or governance, states have had to grapple with these issues without the necessary federal support. In the case of the Trump Administration, that’s become almost increasingly Darwinian, where you have states pitted against each other, as in, for example, in the procurement of medical supplies during the pandemic. The Trump Administration, I think, has been somewhat incoherent relative to past conservative presidencies in its approach to federalism, in that he frequently clashes with governors. The president has also, frankly, sent mixed messages on a lot of policy issues that rather than helping the states have made it harder for states to deal with these crises. The tendency of the president to support not just to vacillate, but to vary based on the partisan leadership of the state has also exacerbated a lot of these tensions. This is what we were talking about, Alex, when you have these crises, when Americans really need all levels of government to work together, it’s too often or often then Trump versus the governors or Trump versus mayors. The end result of that is that people lose faith in administrative response, the ability to govern itself, or to be able respond to a crisis or a problem. We start to lose our faith in bureaucratic institutions. Some critics would say, No, that’s the ultimate dismantling of the administrative state is that when we lose faith in governing institutions, that also opens the door to believe that only a strong executive can fix it. Rather than seeing it as failed leadership, voters often see it as a failure of government more broadly.

    Alexander Morse 24:02

    Speaking on this loss of faith in government, especially at the state and local level, what are the other impacts that these fend-for-yourself federalism, combative dynamic, how is this impacting as it trickles down?

    Lisa Parshall 24:36

    The impact has been significant. State and local governments are really hurting right now. And without that additional federal assistance, either in the form of greater federal capacity or federal dollars, for example, our state municipal governments are looking at many years of fiscal hardship, and that’s going to translate into reduced services, layoffs of public employees, increases in local debt, and deferred maintenance. All of that is directly related in part to the economic fallout of the pandemic and the shutdown. It’s that being left to fend for themselves because the federal government will not or cannot effectively manage creates this, again, vicious cycle where people have distrust of our governing institutions.

    Alexander Morse 25:20

    And as you said, they point the finger at government not necessarily who’s running the government.

    Lisa Parshall 25:25

    Exactly. It’s easy to do, I think, because we blame these nameless bureaucrats. They’re really easy to vilify. But when you think about the administrative state as a check within our constitutional system of power, if you think of it not as the deep state, but as the steady state, political scientists and scholars and public policy scholars will say that it is an integral part of a functioning democracy in that we really need the administrative state to bring something to the table, which is really policy evidence-based evidence-driven policy and expertise to manage through a crisis.

    Alexander Morse 26:07

    So we’ve covered how Trump is trying to dismantle the bureaucratic state, the administrative state, to different degrees of success, depending on who you ask. But what does this, in conclusion, all mean with respect to federalism?

    Lisa Parshall 26:23

    With respect to federalism, we’re in a really interesting moment, I think federalism always matters. But as I was saying, I think we take it for granted until it becomes dysfunctional. We don’t really have a coherent approach to federalism right now. The Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations was disbanded in 1996. So there really isn’t any federal level agency of experts who are guiding federal policy on intergovernmental relations. And that, of course, again, creates frustration. It creates frustration for state and local leaders and has over the course of the pandemic and in the months ahead. And that’s very real. As I was saying, we, the people, have really gotten a master class on federalism watching the clashes take place between the president and governors and between governors and local officials. That’s placed real stress on our federal system. But I also think there’s a positive here and there’s a potential that we could see a revival of interest in a robust federalism and the need for support for a strong administrative state, both at the federal and state level. We might see a rebounding of the public sector and interest in public service as we come out of the crisis on the other side. To the degree that we’ve seen the shrinking of federal and state employees as a result of the pandemic in the crisis, I think at some point that’s going to rebound. We’re going to look again, at some point, I think, to those ranks of career professionals and agency experts to help us guide our policymaking and continue to respond to problems moving forward.

    Alexander Morse 28:04

    Thanks again to Lisa Parshall for joining us today to discuss her upcoming book, Directing the Whirlwind: The Trump Presidency and the Deconstruction of the Administrative State, due for release October 30, coauthored with Jim Twombly. You can check out more of Lisa’s work on federalism and local governments by visiting our website at rockinst.org. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 28:39

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at rockinst.org or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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