Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks in Philadelphia in 2017. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Columnist

Spare a moment to think of HUD. What comes to mind? If it’s affordable housing or anti-discrimination policy, Ben Carson would like to redirect your attention — and that of the department itself.

A memo leaked to HuffPost last week revealed that the housing secretary has plans to change the mission statement of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, by stripping out the phrase “free from discrimination” and cutting references to “quality homes” and “inclusive communities.” A new, shorter statement will emphasize “self-sufficiency” and “opportunity,” in line with Carson’s stated distaste for desegregation initiatives and intense fear that someone might accidentally feel comfortable in public housing.

It’s not the first such change to take place under the watchful eyes of President Trump’s agency appointees. Last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services eliminated the phrase “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement; in the new version, CIS is focused on “securing the homeland.” This past summer, officials at the State Department scrubbed the word “democracy” from theirs.

They’re just words, you might be tempted to say. Talk is cheap in the Trump administration, especially when it comes to actual policy. But these mission modifications are actually significant interventions. We shouldn’t let them sneak past.

When a new political regime comes into power, especially one wishing to make a dramatic break with its predecessors, there are a few paths it can take to shift the machinery of government. The bluntest options are to fire existing personnel and cut the budgets of the operations it disagrees with. More insidiously, political leaders can slowly reorient the priorities of organizations under their purview. In the first year of his presidency, Trump has tried all of the above, yet his administration’s work in the last category has managed to fly largely under the radar.

How many of us have noticed? Let’s be honest. As a single offering within the smorgasbord of outrages that make up the Trumpian news cycle — Trade war! Nuclear threats! Russian interference! Surprise firings! — the prospect of bureaucrats changing some agency boilerplate seems minor. One can understand why these quiet shifts in phraseology have rarely made front-page news, especially when there are porn-star payoffs to cover.

So it makes sense that many of the alarms were first sounded on small blogs or over email, by industry watchers and concerned career employees. Devex , a media site for aid workers, first flagged changes to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s mission statement, which reorients the agency’s ambitions away from ending extreme poverty to pushing countries off aid. An alert former advisory board member tweeted that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau had added a line to its mission statement making “identifying and addressing outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome regulations” its top priority, instead of rule enforcement.

But these shifts matter for the rest of us, too.

Mission statements can seem like corporate pabulum, but there’s a reason organizations have them — they clarify internal perspective and communicate it to the world. As HUD’s own assistant secretary for public affairs put it in announcing the proposed revision, “A mission statement describes an organization’s purpose, what it intends to do, and whom it intends to serve.” Changing missions has real-world ramifications. What does it mean when the State Department is no longer in the business of democracy promotion? When the federal consumer protection bureau privileges cutting regulations for companies over protecting citizens? The answers are important.

In a press briefing this past summer, Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller sparred with a reporter over the meaning of the Statue of Liberty, noting that the famous poem on its base — “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” — was a late addition and implying that it was not representative of America’s true position on immigration. The outrage that followed demonstrated how much even symbolic language matters, that the rhetoric and meaning we embrace as a country define who we are.

The redefinitions within federal agencies are happening more quietly than this, but many are just as radical. Words matter. Trump’s appointees haven’t forgotten that — and neither should we.

Read some of the rewritten mission statements of Trump’s federal agencies, with Christine’s annotations, here.