The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the Trump administration is weaponizing government bureaucracy against those it doesn’t like

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

There’s an old saying that Republicans claim government doesn’t work, and then when they take control they set about to prove it. But something else is happening right now, especially in the Trump administration but extending to Republicans at all levels, too. We’re seeing the emergence of a two-pronged strategy. Where government is in the business of protecting consumers, workers or anyone else who doesn’t have money and power, they’re pulling back on those efforts, and in some cases trying to eliminate them entirely. And at the same time, they’re weaponizing bureaucracy itself in order to use it against everyone they don’t like, whether it’s immigrants or poor people or Democrats.

Let’s begin with this Post article:

The White House on Thursday will propose merging the Education and Labor departments into one federal agency, the centerpiece of a plan to remake a bureaucracy that President Trump and his supporters consider too big and bloated, according to an administration official familiar with the plan.
The long-awaited proposal to reorganize federal agencies would shrink some and augment the missions of others. It is the result of a directive that Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget, issued to federal leaders 14 months ago. He urged them to find ways to merge overlapping, duplicative offices and programs and eliminate those the administration views as unnecessary.
The plan also is expected to include major changes to the way the government provides benefits for low-income Americans, an area that conservatives have long targeted as excessive, by consolidating safety-net programs that are administered through multiple agencies.

We should say that it’s possible for some good things to come out of this kind of reorganization. Just like any large organization, the government has plenty of inefficiency and duplication that could be improved upon. But the fact that it’s being led by Mulvaney, fresh from his evisceration of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tells you that making things run more smoothly is not the primary goal.

The real tell can be found in this New York Times article, which reports that the proposal “includes relocating many social safety net programs into a new megadepartment, which would replace the Department of Health and Human Services and possibly include the word “welfare” in its title.” Why might they want that?

The answer is that, as Republicans well know, since the 1960s the word “welfare” has been associated in the mind of white Americans with shiftless black people getting unearned benefits. Actual welfare — the cash assistance program now referred to as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — amounts to just $16.6 billion per year, or about four-tenths of one percent of the federal budget, an amount that has been frozen since 1996. Yet people continue to believe that we’re spending lavishly on welfare; in one 2014 poll, 58 percent of Americans said we spend too much on “welfare,” but when asked about “assistance to the poor,” only 16 percent said we were spending too much.

So when a Republican administration sets out to brand nearly all safety net programs as “welfare,” we know exactly what it’s doing. It’s trying to mobilize racial resentment to delegitimize those programs as a way of setting the stage for future cuts.

Of course, if you asked, the administration would say it only wants to reduce the size and scope of government, because every step forward government takes is a step backward for freedom. Which brings us to the weaponization of bureaucracy.

The current border crisis is a vivid example of how, when they want to, Republicans will put in place a bureaucratic maze that certain people will find impossible to navigate. If you’re seeking asylum in the United States, you’ll be confronted not just with a complex system that can take months or even years to resolve your case but also one that the Trump administration made even crueler, to the point of taking children from their parents, in order to punish and deter those fleeing their home countries. The Environmental Protection Agency may be feeling hamstrung these days, but if you work for an agency like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, you’ve been liberated to use government authority in sometimes arbitrary ways to impose your will on people who are powerless against you.

Or consider the executive order Trump signed in April telling federal agencies to impose work requirements on all forms of public assistance wherever and whenever they can. Experts will tell you that the idea that significant numbers of people are milking the system is just wrong; most people who get things such as Medicaid or food stamps are either working low-wage jobs, looking for work or can’t work because they’re disabled or are caring for loved ones. What work requirements do, however, is force recipients to struggle through a bureaucratic nightmare of documenting their hours, getting their boss to sign their time sheets, delivering them on time to the government office — with any slip-up meaning you could lose your benefits.

One more example: To minimize the number of Democrats who can make it to the polls, Republicans have worked hard to come up with impediments to voting that they know will fall hardest on people less likely to vote Republican, particularly African Americans. Voter-ID laws, strict rules about who can register voters, limited early-voting hours, fewer polling places — all are ways of making the voting bureaucracy more imposing and less forgiving.

Just as Republicans pretend to care about the deficit only until they get the opportunity to cut taxes and raise military spending, their concern about overbearing government bureaucracy turns out to be extremely selective. If you’re the right kind of person — a large corporation that would like to pollute more or mistreat its workers, or a payday lender charging usurious interest rates, or a for-profit college scamming its students, let’s say — they’re committed to liberating you from government’s oppressive hand. But if you’re the wrong kind of person — an immigrant or a poor person, let’s say — they’ll use government bureaucracy to increase your misery in any way they can.