Why Trump's Cabinet vacancies, turnover threaten our government

Chris Lu
The lack of political leadership in Trump's Cabinet can be debilitating for the functioning of the federal government.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen's ouster just contributed to the the high rate of turnover among Trump's Cabinet. And while public attention to the Trump administration's vacancies has been low, it's a matter that greatly affects the federal government's ability to serve the American people.

Nielsen's resignation is the 15th departure of a member of Trump's Cabinet in just over two years. This turnover rate is more than double the rate of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama at this point in an administration. According to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas at the Brookings Institution, no president going back to Ronald Reagan "has appointed three departmental secretaries (to the same department) within the first 27 months of their administration."

To folks outside Washington, this turnover might not mean much. But the lack of political leadership can be debilitating for the functioning of the federal government. As one expert noted, it's the equivalent of having a substitute teacher in a classroom. Sure, there's some adult supervision, but it's not clear how much is actually getting done.

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During the presidential campaign and the early days of the administration, Trump claimed that a businessman could better run government, he would "hire the best people," and his Cabinet was "the finest group of people ever assembled."

The reality has been much different. With Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon now gone, too, there are now five vacant Cabinet positions. That doesn't even count the constant turnover at the White House, which is now on its third chief of staff, third national security advisor, and who-knows-how-many communications directors. 

President Donald Trump

There are also key vacancies within federal departments. Most notably, the top three positions are now empty at the Department of Homeland Security, as are leadership positions at key immigration subagencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The department's chief financial officer and inspector general positions are vacant, the general counsel is rumored to be departing and the Secret Service director will be exiting at the end of this month.

The dangers of an acting official

Few organizations could operate effectively with a large number of temporary leaders.  The effects of this personnel void are especially pronounced when it occurs in government. Officials who serve in an acting capacity are unable to drive organizational change, resist political pressures from the White House, and defend their agencies from internal and external attacks. There is also a corrosive effect on morale, as employees sense that their work isn't valued.

The impact of so many vacancies also has potential ramifications for the delivery of public services. As the federal government's third largest department with more than 240,000 employees, DHS has a broad mission that encompasses immigration enforcement, terrorism prevention, cybersecurity, airline security, drug interdiction and disaster response.

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The problem of vacancies isn't limited to DHS. The president likes to blame Senate Democrats for dragging their feet on confirming his nominees, but the truth is that he has failed to select anyone for one-quarter of critical positions.

For instance, the head job at the Federal Aviation Administration has been vacant for 15 months, with Trump nominating someone only after problems surfaced with the Boeing 737 Max. Despite Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, the position of U.S. ambassador to Mexico has been open since May 2018.

Vacancies serve Trump's interests

One person not bothered by these vacancies is Trump himself, who says that acting officials give him "more flexibility." Like an episode of "The Apprentice," the temporary nature of these appointments incentivizes acting officials to vie for the chance to serve permanently, helping to ensure their loyalty to Trump.

While such a management approach might generate short-term loyalty, it's not conducive to producing positive outcomes. Whether it's a Fortune 500 company or the federal government, a diverse set of voices — especially dissenting voices — is needed around the table. The U.S. government is called upon to address complex problems on a daily basis, and a leadership team that doesn't challenge the president's world view can’t make the right decisions to properly serve the American people.

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Trump's desire to leave so many key positions open also does harm to our constitutional system of checks and balances. The Senate confirmation process is critical for evaluating the qualifications of nominees, eliciting their views on key policy issues, and ensuring that nominees understand their duty to the U.S. Constitution, and not just the occupant of the Oval Office.

After firing his Homeland Security secretary, Trump indicated that it doesn't matter who's in charge of the department because: "Frankly, there's only one person who is running it. You know who that is? It's me!"  This might be a perfectly acceptable way to run a small family business, but it's no way to run the U.S. government.

Chris Lu served as White House Cabinet Secretary during the Obama administration and was later confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the deputy secretary of labor. He is currently a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center. You can follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLu44.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Trump's Cabinet vacancies, turnover threaten our government