Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Bureaucracy Czar? (Updated)
Whether you like his policies as the Secretary of State, or don’t, right now Rex Tillerson is doing God’s work, Garden of Eden work, Noah’s Ark work, in the Department of State. So holster your weapons.
One of the best scenes in the classic film “The Last Emperor” was when Pu-Yi, the last Manchu emperor of China, wanted to modernize China and the Chinese government but was unable because of the great army of bureaucrats walled inside the Forbidden City. In a bold stroke, suddenly they were expelled, en masse, and a more beautiful scene to behold as they were flushed out than when I dreamed dreams of Ronald Reagan doing the same thing in 1987.
Having been inside federal, state and Fortune 500 bureaucracies for over 45 years, including a lot to time spent watching Soviet style system play out their symphonies since the 90s, I’ve thought long and hard about busting bureaucracies, and to date Rex Tillerson is the main government insider who appears to be taking the threat of bureaucratism seriously, even as the deep state is working overtime to derail every Trump initiative.
This hatred (or fear) may also point to the source of the many rumors of Tillerson’s fall from favor of Trump. He is indeed a threat to the State Department bureaucracy, and I doubt very much that President Trump is opposed to it, although Jared and Ivanka may well be. (Call the difference of opinions generational, and wait and see whether blood is thicker than wisdom to Mr Trump.)
I first encountered the sassyness of bureaucratism while serving as a Judge Advocate at the Army headquarters in Ft Huachuca, Arizona. They had a GS-14 senior public relations officer who had been charged with insubordination, refusing to carry out an order by his boss, the Post commander. I think it was a personal matter between the CG and him, but, (my guess) with just a little more than a year to go before retirement, he disobeyed a direct order, probably just to tweak the CG, and the general launched a case to fire him. I was part of the review process, which everyone already knew was going to be decided on costs alone, i.e., the cost of litigation versus the cost of just letting him ride out his last year. It would be less costly to let him hold onto his desk but strip him of all duties and authority. There were several ways to do this. I was a brash captain, myself only a few months from separation back to civilian life, my only addition to the suggestion box was that they give him an orange jump suit and empty peach crate and tell his he is still a GS-14, but him principal job would be to pick up trash around the Intelligence School. He was really an arrogant and insolent man.
When I left the Army later in the year he was logging 5-6 rounds of golf a week on company time, but he was also doing no harm; a benign wart on the behind of a large cancerous sow, doing no greater damage than stealing approximately $47,000 (in those days) of taxpayer money, chump change even in 1976.
I tell this story simply to illustrate the various ways to mitigate the damage of an out-of-control bureaucracy, all depending on the overall plan; to reduce its size, reduce its mission, reduce its power, etc. I’m not sure what Tillerson’s plan is, but he appears to be trying to force resignations and retirements by refusing to refill empty desks, which to my memory, is unheard of in government, outside the military and police departments, who are always the first squeezed.
Consider: Assume that each desk in a bureaucracy represents one professional job, and a sum of money fixed by statute. Let’s say $80.000. Agency and departmental budgets are based on those desks being filled, and if they aren’t that $80,000 must be returned to the general fund to be redistributed the next budget year.
Even in 1969, when I worked in state government, it was unthinkable, UNPARDONABLE, to give money back to the state treasury. The fear was that if you gave money back you were signaling you didn’t need it, so would be cut by that amount the next year. You see this sort of thinking in the budget process in the Senate. Guys like Bob Corker, even as he is dropping out next year, can’t see the government giving money back to the people, the ultimate treasury, lest they not be willing to fork more over if the need ever arises in the future. It’s as if the Congress only sits in session once a decade and it has been years since the Congress had to attend to a new budget every year.
In 1969, we would spend the last drops at the end of the fiscal year by going out and buying office supplies by the square yard, then store them in a corner, so that our office manager could then do his Radar O’Reilly routine and go out and barter those supplies around other state agencies, possibly for a generator for one of our field offices. You get the idea. It was an annual rite.
But if you refuse to fill vacant slots you not only give money back, but you upset virtually every other desk in the department, for each desk has a “primary duty” and now those primary duties from closed desks have to be spread around to other desks.
All sorts of laws of bureaucratic harmony come into play when this happens. Disharmony, stress, internal squabbling, the age-old “if I’m doing more work, why am I not being paid more?” bitchiness we recognize more at the Waffle House grill than professional staff in federal government. It alters the entire biorhythms of an professional environment and clearly makes bureaucrats appear petty. (For a glimpse at bureaucracies, drunk and sober, look at my short write-up about Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”. Worth your time to watch, especially if you work in the White House.)
At least this is how it works in theory, since I can’t recall a single major downward bureaucratic reorganization in government in my lifetime. One would have to go back to the great RIF’s (reductions in force) after the Vietnam War (in which I also played a small part since our 3-star wanted to save as many uniformed slots as possible while reorganizing the headquarters) to find a history of major downsizing, but which is a regular fact of life for the military as it walks back from a wartime footing to a peace-time one. Police departments suffer the same fate every time a new administration moves into City Hall.)
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any policy difference between Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump. People forget that Dick Cheney unfriended George W Bush when GW changed his policy toward Iran. These things happen. Often for the worse, since Bush prevailed, and that is part of the mess sitting in Trump’s lap today. Rex Tillerson understands that’s part of his job, regardless of how history portrays it later on. I will have no comment about that here.
But it’s impossible to define rumors, even “moron” rumors, without considering the sources, and the monumental threat Tillerson’s bureaucracy-busting represents to the larger body of those unnamed sources dampens the theory that policy differences divide Tillerson and the President.
Since Tillerson is doing God’s work with the State bureaucracy, and is doing it well, I’m all for Trump naming Rex Tillerson Bureaucracy Czar, upping the ante and timetable on draining the Swamp. Move someone else into the Secretary’s Office.
Heaven will sing if he’s successful.
By definition, bureaucracy-management, cost and mission reduction, are secondary missions of an agency director, secondary to whatever the agency’s primary mission is, from clean air, to keeping us out of war. A bureaucracy czar can put his/he whole mind to it, employing tools and methods the average HR specialist has never considered. My experience is that most managers, ever since Dr Parkinson wrote his laws, are most resistant to losing even 1%, much less 10% of their staffs. It’s sort of like Matt Lauer losing his hair, creating major needs for compensation.
If we can’t move the federal DC bureaucracy entirely within the District, where their vote won’t effect state elections, we can move entire agencies to other cities, preferably blue cities, (and their blighted areas, Ferguson-St Louis, Baltimore, Detroit), where their vote won’t matter. This would be the equivalent of moving United Nations headquarters to Karachi or Caracas.
I haven’t been around federal civil service regulations in over 40 years, by there has to be dozens of ways, if you can’t fire them, to at least blight the path of the bureaucracy as it moves inextricably toward blighting Donald Trump’s (and peoples”) path toward restoring the Constitutional blueprint, which of necessity means reducing their size, their cost, and their power over the lives of American citizens.
All that requires a special hand, cleverness and willpower.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. So if Rex Tillerson is having a positive impact at State, give him a bigger army, I say.
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