Trying for the Republican nomination in 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry, now Department of Energy Secretary-designate, vowed to abolish that department but couldn’t remember its name. Several Trump appointees have for years fought the agencies they will now head, and candidate Trump promised to drain the DC swamp: “We will cut so much, your head will spin.”

We’ve seen swamp-draining attempts before. In 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan pledged to eliminate the new Department of Energy, which President Carter founded only in 1977 in response to the big runup in world petroleum prices. Reagan scoffed at another worthless bureaucracy that did nothing that market competition wouldn’t do better and cheaper. 

In early 1981, as Reagan was taking office, I asked a friend, an official of the Energy Department, if he was worried about his job. He admitted that his newly appointed boss bluntly told him that he would soon be gone. 

But my friend was nonchalant. “They can’t close Energy. We manufacture nuclear bombs, and the administration needs us to conceal the size of the bomb budget.” I was incredulous, but Reagan didn’t touch the Department of Energy. For President Trump, who promises to beef up our nuclear arsenal, the same mask is even more useful.

My friend politely asked his new boss if he should hand over his case files and depart immediately or tidy up the complex projects he was working on. The new guy took one look at the thick case files and asked my friend to stay on a bit longer. He worked there until his comfortable retirement many years later. 

The Point: Bureaucrats know a lot of stuff and that gives them a lot of influence. And the 3,000 or so new political appointees who think they’re going to control government programs usually discover that they can’t. They simply don’t know enough.

In the case of Energy, many new political appointees are unaware that the old Atomic Energy Commission, founded in 1947, was in 1977 folded into the new Energy Department, some 60 percent of whose budget is related to nuclear matters. Bomb-building, unflagged, is buried within its budget.

And Congress set up most departments and agencies after deliberation and for good reasons. Attempts to end them often remind Congress of the original reasons for their existence. Even conservative administrations mostly make only minor trims to existing agencies.

Will Trump-appointed “disrupters” really demolish their agencies? Maybe, but if they hesitate, they start seeing matters through the eyes of their civil servants. Self-important executives swear their agencies are awfully important, in need of more budget and personnel. If the Trump people are serious about closing agencies, they would leave the agency’s political slots vacant. But they fill them, and the new political appointees are soon defending their agency, its turf and its staff.

 
Career civil servants are reportedly worried about promised cuts and partisan witch hunts. They can leak embarrassing materials. In stages over several months, anonymous CIA officials told the media that (1) Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee, (2) the released emails aimed to help Trump, and finally (3) Putin directed this. Trump’s transition team fumes in rage, but the warning is implicit: “How many leaks do you want?”

Similar leaks led to Nixon’s resignation. In 1973, John Dean “speculated” to the Senate Watergate panel that Oval Office conversations may have been recorded. The panel then asked White House aide Alexander Butterfield if there was a tape system. He admitted, under penalties of perjury, that there was. (By the way, does testifying under oath override secrecy contracts?)

Trump, like Reagan, will likely not make whole agencies and departments disappear but slowly starve a few of them of funds and personnel and turn them to doing favors for major donor groups. If that results in a scandal, they figure so much the better, as the tainted agency is unlikely to fully recover its funding and status.

Republicans loathe especially the Environmental Protection Agency (founded in 1970 by Nixon) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (founded in 1978 by Carter) as meddlesome and incompetent. But when Washington tries to cut their budgets and move their functions to the states, disasters pop up: toxic municipal water and Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. 

If Republicans underfund agencies, disasters let Democrats claim the Republican administration left the nation unprepared. The weakness of Bush’s FEMA response to Katrina in 2005 helped Obama in 2008. FEMA’s rapid response to Sandy in 2012 — just a week before polling — boosted Obama’s re-election. Let’s see if the Trump administration scraps EPA, FEMA or any other agency. I bet they don’t. Reagan didn’t.

As Yale’s Joseph LaPalombara observed, no regime fully controls its bureaucracy. Federal civil servants have seen administrations come and go, their political appointees arriving with passionate intensity but little practical knowledge. Wholesale cutting or swamp-draining of the civil service hurts governmental effectiveness, including applying new policies. Don’t turn the bureaucracy into an enemy.