Dispatches from the Swamp: To the Bureaucrats, with Love

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About 173,000 people work for federal agencies in this Washington DC, and let’s be absolutely clear from the get-go: the mood among them is grim. Every time one of them is asked what they do, the next question always is, “Whoa, what’s that like right now?” A lot of people I know answer, “Why, I’m just making America great again.” It’s a joke, but the humor is long gone. Because the real answer is that it’s like walking into work every day knowing you’re going to get punched in the face. And yet, since January, it is the bureaucrats, more than anyone else here in the swamp, who have put the entire country on their backs. These are the people who keep the United States open for business, pleasure, and everything in between, and they are the people of whom this administration is most terrified.

This is a love letter to all 173,000 of them.

Civil servants cannot create policy; their purpose is to work with political appointees to refine it, improve it, and implement it in a way that benefits as many people—and hurts as few—as possible. The goal of this system is to ensure continuity and stability whichever way the political winds are huffing and puffing.

Importantly, they are virtually impossible to fire. The only real ways to get fired are to commit an ethics violation, a felony, or worse, give an unsanctioned public comment to the press. In theory, this gives civil servants the ability to tell their higher-ups the truth and not fear for their jobs. But the reality is a little less idealistic: civil servants aren’t afraid that they will lose their jobs. They’re afraid their higher-ups will lock them out of the room where it happens. You may have all the expertise in the world, but in government, it’s worthless if you can’t channel it into action. You need people to want to listen to you, and so savvy civil servants find ways of making themselves heard. “It’s human nature,” says a friend, “People want to be liked, and if you tell them things they don’t want to hear, they’re less likely to listen.”

In my first Dispatch, I wrote: “People move here to do good, and they will defend their power to do so with the utmost cynicism.” Part of that is knowing when to keep your damn mouth shut—or, in DC-speak, “preserving one’s political capital.” Civil servants are used to having to keep their powder dry and pick their battles, both in private and in public. They can’t even tweet, because anything they say could be construed as being official US policy. Civil servants take this responsibility deeply seriously—I wish I could make this column nothing but their war stories, but I can’t. What they are is careful, because that’s what you have to be when you are the US government, the greatest bull in a china shop in human history.

While the civil servants are being careful, once a week, some senior administration official blithely commits the kind of ethical trespass that would get any civil servant fired in seconds. The once-obscure Hatch Act, which has been much in the news lately as one senior administration official after another runs afoul of it, was in fact created in 1939 to prohibit civil servants from engaging in political action while doing their jobs.

The reason these violations are happening, though, is the same reason why no significant legislation has been passed, or why one executive order after another gets dunked on in court: because the administration is so shit-scared of anyone who isn’t either fanatically loyal or indebted to them that they have attempted to cut the civil servants out of the decision making process entirely. The administration does not understand that one of the most vital roles of the civil service is to keep political appointees, who rarely have direct experience working within an agency, from humiliating themselves. But because the administration so distrusts anyone who will not swear loyalty to the White House, since November 9 they have been more amateurish than an open mic poetry reading in a college town. And then, when policy pushes collapse, when regulatory rollbacks get tossed, when the Muslim ban falls apart or agencies openly contradict each other, the administration and its supporters blame the “deep state,” they blame the swamp, when in reality, the swamp was there all along, waiting to help.

Civil servants can put up with a lot. Even on its best days this system eats idealism, and craps out jaded pragmatism. But even more than the bad policy and contempt for norms, this one thing wounds civil servants to their core: the preposterous, foot-shooting unwillingness to listen. The locking them out of the room. The questioning of their patriotism. The accusation that they are failing at the one duty they take more seriously than any other: to set aside their personal politics and do their jobs. This isn’t just demoralizing. This hurts.

So no, it’s not a surprise that the psyche of the federal workforce is in lousy shape. The surprise is that they are not leaving.

Before the election, I was certain that if things went badly, this city would empty out. I pictured mass exodus. U-Hauls on the Beltway. Empty tables at brunch. Fall of Saigon stuff. I was completely wrong. Yes, in some agencies like State and Interior, where the secretaries have deliberately made life unbearable, people are heading for the exits. But the vast majority of civil servants are staying put. The swamp abides.

Nobody joins the civil service for glory or money. They don’t join because they are wide-eyed idealists (or if they are, ten minutes with the US Congress will beat it firmly out of them). They join because they believe in the importance of solid, stable, competent institutions. And they stay because they understand something that America seems not to: those institutions are fragile.

Institutions are fragile. This is an article of faith among civil servants. Institutions are the reason the republic stands and endures, and doesn’t slip into mob rule. Institutions are the political superego, there to check the worst impulses of politicians and people alike. Institutions are fragile and it is civil servants’ job to defend them, whatever their personal feelings. So every day they slip their ID lanyards over their necks and go to work and get punched in the face while trying to make people’s lives better and if that is not patriotism the word has no meaning.

It’s easy to take civil servants for granted. That is the whole point. In a developed country citizens should not have to think about the state of the civil service. Historically, American institutions have been so robust that we have been able to bitch and moan about them, safe in the knowledge that they’re not in any real danger. And here we come to the greatest irony of all: the only reason that anti-establishment mania has been able to wrap its sweaty fingers around the American throat is because there is no one in this country old enough to remember a time when American establishments were actually threatened. No one who says “blow it up and start over” has the faintest idea what it’s like when a country actually does that. But the civil service’s historic competence enables people to think that way, secure in the knowledge that it won’t really happen.

So if it doesn’t happen now, if the wheels stay on the wagon and we get through this—and we will get through it because we are getting through it—then let us finally give credit to the civil servants. There should be a monument in bronze to them, nothing big or ostentatious, just a small statue maybe located near a popular spot for food trucks. It could be a man and a woman striding in off-the-rack suits, IDs hanging on a lanyard around their necks, Blackberries in each hand, and on the plinth below them it should read in golden letters: THEY KEPT OUR NATION’S SHIT TOGETHER.


Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse (Spring 2017), Catapult, the TLS, Roads & Kingdoms, and The Brooklyn Rail. An MFA student in fiction at George Mason University, he's currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy. Find him being overenthusiastic about stuff on twitter at @samuelashworth. More from this author →