Trump-Era Inertia Bogs Down Agencies as Biden Seeks Urgency

Interior Department staffers churned out dozens of drilling permits despite an order for upper-level review. The U.S. Postal Service spurned green alternatives and bought tens of thousands of gasoline-powered vehicles. And across the government, Donald Trump loyalists remain in influential positions.

President Joe Biden is being defied by his own government as his ambitious plans to undo four years of Trump run into a harsh reality: The government lumbers on, slow to turn course even after an election. Cumbersome bureaucracy threatens his agenda on everything from fighting climate change to ending the coronavirus pandemic.

“You load these systems up and they are going to keep grinding,” said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “They don’t stop to congratulate the president on his inauguration. They keep going and stopping them is difficult.”

An early example occurred as staffers at the Bureau of Land Management approved dozens permits authorizing drilling on federal land despite a Biden order temporarily leaving such decisions to top Interior Department officials. The roughly 70 permits were deemed invalid and revoked days later.

“It appears that on these particular permits, it was indeed the wheels of bureaucracy that were still turning,” said Jayson O’Neill, director of the Washington watchdog group Accountable.US.

Then there is the so-called “burrowing” of political appointees converted during Trump’s final weeks in office to career civil service positions, making them hard to dismiss. At least two-dozen such employees are in positions, according to Accountable.US.

The group cited Mark Brown, who, as the Education Department’s head of Federal Student Aid, came under fire from progressives. Under Brown, the department was sued for continuing to garnish wages from student loan borrowers during the pandemic and improperly seizing $2.2 billion in tax refunds, according to Accountable.Us. The Education Department announced Friday that Brown had resigned.

“The potential historic number of holdovers and hangers-on from the previous administration pose a serious threat to the will of the American people and President Biden’s efforts to get the pandemic and recession under control,” Accountable.US said in a statement.

The White House didn’t respond to request for comment on the pace of change.

Ironically, Trump frequently complained that his presidency was bedeviled by a “deep state” of liberal bureaucrats who sought to block his conservative agenda.

Some of the resistance to change is by design: Congress set up many agencies throughout government to be independent, answerable to officials or board members with fixed terms that overlap presidential administrations.

These agencies can pose a particular challenge, and not just in early days of an administration, said Jack Beermann, a professor at Boston University School of Law who studies administrative law.

“It’s very hard for a new president to have strong control -- or any control -- over them,” Beermann said.

Postal Vehicle Contract

For example, within weeks of Biden issuing an order for the government to buy electric and other climate-friendly vehicles, the independent Postal Service awarded a mammoth contract to buy a fleet made up of mainly gasoline-powered delivery vehicles. A runner-up, Workhorse Group Inc., bid an all-electric fleet and is mulling a protest.

Some lawmakers blamed a notable holdover: Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor appointed last year by the Postal Service board.

DeJoy’s tenure “has been a disaster,” Representatives Tim Ryan and Marcy Kaptur and Senator Sherrod Brown, all Ohio Democrats, wrote in a letter to Biden requesting he halt the vehicle-contract award to Oshkosh Corp., a Wisconsin company. Workhorse is based in Ohio.

Mail delivery still hasn’t recovered from a slowdown that began after DeJoy cut overtime and extra trips by delivery trucks last year in an effort to rein in costs. But he remains in his job, with the president unable to replace him. The Biden appointees to the postal board of governors who may be able to do that are awaiting Senate confirmation.

In other cases, Biden simply hasn’t fired Trump political appointees in key positions at agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the FBI, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“Our view is that Biden is taking over from a president who routinely and systematically undermined the rule of law and did not govern in good faith and everyone serving in the Trump administration is presumably an ally of Trump,” Hauser said, adding that removing Trump appointees from office is “low-hanging fruit” for Biden to pick.

He pointed to Charles Rettig, who Trump appointed Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service after the tax lawyer wrote an op-ed in Forbes defending candidate Trump’s decision not to release his tax returns. Rettig was confirmed in 2018 to a term that runs to 2022. Anthony Burke, an IRS spokesman, declined to comment.

Some parts of the government remain at less than full speed as the White House and Senate try to confirm agency leaders. The Federal Communications Commission, for instance, has been at a 2-2 partisan deadlock since Biden took office and the agency’s Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, voluntarily departed.

The FCC should act forcefully as soon as it can, suggested Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, to restore net-neutrality protections created under Obama appointees and voided by Trump ones.

“A new day has dawned,” Markey told reporters on Tuesday.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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