The devastation wrought by COVID-19 has laid bare just how vulnerable we are when the institutions of American life fail to work. It is one of the great miracles of the American creed that we soldier on no matter the circumstances—that, for example, health care professionals continue to serve even as resources are scarce. But when this crisis abates – and it will – we need to fix what’s broken across much of American government. And here’s one place that’s often overlooked: the federal government’s executive branch.
When analysts focus on gridlock, dysfunction, or whatever word you choose to describe Washington’s failure to solve problems, they tend to home in on either the one person who sits in the Oval Office or on Congress. As many correctly point out, Democrats and Republicans too frequently scream at each other—or else talk past one another when they should be hammering together bipartisan legislation. Fortunately, the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bloc of 25 Republicans and 25 Democrats working together on a range of issues, is now building a bridge into the Senate.
But government’s failures are not exclusively the province of Capitol Hill or the Oval Office. If you drove around Washington (before the era of social distancing) and took stock of the enormous number of federal buildings, you would know that the vast majority aren’t extensions of Congress, but rather are filled by bureaucrats working in agencies run, in the main, by explicitly political appointees—men and women who have been selected to fill important positions explicitly because they’ve paid heed to one of the two political parties.
The results are predictable. The bureaucracies these political appointees control are often made not to solve problems but to grind political axes. Rather than finding the proper balance between, say, economic growth and environmental protection, bureaucracies charged with writing and enforcing regulations vacillate from one to the other as control of the White House bounces from one party to the other. Rather than trying to find a bipartisan way forward on immigration reform and border protection, agencies leaders pick one over the other.
There are, of course, some protections against the politicization of executive branch bureaucracies. To cut back on the patronage system that empowered 19th century presidents to staff government agencies explicitly through patronage, civil service reforms created a protected class of bureaucrats who remain at government agencies even as the political winds change. But over the last several decades, too many political appointees who control those bureaucracies have largely abandoned the long tradition of acting in the broad public interest, far too often giving in to the impulse to act as partisan functionaries. That needs to change.
Turning this tide will be a big task. Those in power today have no incentive to give up their authority voluntarily. So, while we can work toward this goal during this election year, the ground may not yet be entirely fertile. That said, 2024 is a different story. Leaders in both parties will realize they stand some chance of losing the presidential election, and depending on how this year’s election evolves, neither party will necessarily have an incumbent advantage. In other words, both parties will have an incentive to embrace the notion that executive branch appointees—from Cabinet-level posts all the way down to those working one level above the civil servants—should be appointed on account of their competence, rather than their fealty to one party or the other. So we need to begin working now to provide the foundation for a truly “integrated government.”
Some will argue that a bipartisan administration is beyond the pale—that the executive branch needs to be the sole property of one party or the other. But in the scheme of incredible things that have happened over the last few years, integrating the executive branch would hardly be among the most radical. This has worked at the state level—Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, for example, has both Democrats and Republicans serving in his administration.
Fixing Congress may be the first order, and the Problem Solvers are well on their way to building momentum for a solutions-oriented legislature. But we can’t lose sight of the rest of government. America can grow strong after this crisis abates—but only if our leaders ensure that we work to solve problems together. Beyond having a token Cabinet secretary from the other party in any given administration, the president inaugurated in 2025 should lead a government that is balanced between left and right.
Nancy Jacobson is CEO and founder No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.