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Bruce Bialosky

Who Really Runs the Federal Government?

We go to the polls every four years to elect a president. That president then appoints hundreds of people, many approved by the Senate. Most people think that these are the people we have put in charge for four-to-eight years; we then decide which team we want for the next four-to-eight years. Unfortunately, they are not the people who run the government and there is very little discussion about who does: The Senior Executive Service (SES).

The SES (established in 1978) falls under the auspices of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). They state on their website: “The SES was established to ensure that the executive management of the Government of the United States is responsive to the needs, policies, and goals of the Nation and otherwise is of the highest quality.” They go on to say “These leaders possess well-honed executive skills and share a broad perspective on government and a public service commitment that is grounded in the Constitution.” That is their take.

If you are wondering about the importance of these positions, reflect on President Trump’s comments this week about his appointments not getting approved by the U.S. Senate. As every one of those appointments linger for up to two years the SES people are in charge of the responsibilities and the decision making.

The government has a system of ranking positions. The highest is a GS-15. The SES positions are above those. These are lifetime appointments. The SES are not members of government unions. These people are just below the presidential appointees in all effected departments.

Only 10% of these people can be political appointees. The other 90% are career government employees. As of 2019 these people make between $127,914 and $192,300. Many also receive annual bonuses in the range of $15,000 to $20,000. That does not include health insurance and retirement benefits and the rest of the perks provided to government employees. Certain agencies have their own programs that are akin to this. The agencies mainly have to do with national security/law enforcement – FBI, CIA, DIA, NSA, TSA, FAA, GAO and several others.

You are probably wondering how many of these positions exist. For example, there are 490 at the Dept. of Energy and 425 at the Dept. of Commerce. In 2016, there were about 7,000 employees at this classification. Of those, 68% were appointed during Obama administration. We don’t know what their governmental philosophies are or that of the other 32% from prior administrations, but we know they cannot be fired. There is an internal running joke that the worst that can happen to them is they get shipped to Idaho or Alaska. They still get full pay.

Despite the power and importance of SES, there is virtually no coverage of these people by the media. The most powerful permanent federal employees get almost no press. These are people who make most of the day-to-day decisions about how our government operates yet citizens don’t even know they exist.

One of the few columns I could find was an Atlantic column published back in early 2016. The column is entitled Can the Government Fix its Corps of Managers? It ends with this statement, “Forty years after its creation, many of the problems the SES was intended to solve persist.” The author states that the problem is that too many of the people who reach the level of SES get there because of their technical skills, not because of their management prowess. That conclusion came from a report issued by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board in a December 2015 report.

There are about 4,000 presidential appointments of which about 1,200 need U.S. Senate confirmation. Think about how long it takes for all of those to get filled. You can be one of those appointees and arrive in your position after a year. Or you are appointed two years in to replace someone. Say you are supervising seven SES. These are people who have been working for the government 15-20 years or more and in their lifetime position for more than five years. How much do you think they are going to rely on or even listen to the new political appointee? Especially if you want to upset the proverbial applecart.

My discussions with multiple people who have had those positions in the Bush and Trump Administrations say the SES don’t respond a lot. The SES listen, they are polite and professional, and they then go back to running our ossified government. The question is how can we assure that the SES achieves its stated goal of ensuring the government is responsive to the needs of its citizenry when the people responsible for meeting that goal are not accountable to the citizens or their hand-picked representatives?

There are no studies that show their political leanings. There is very little information at all about the SES. Yet, we can surmise the leanings by simply looking at Northern Virginia which has become the bedroom community for the ever-burgeoning federal government. Those communities have turned Virginia from a red state to a blue state. The donations of federal employees to the Clinton campaign during the 2016 election was 19 to 1 compared to the Trump campaign. It is reasonable to assume that the SES — which are career government employees — are largely in favor of big government, believe government will eventually solve the problems and vote for Democrats.

When a disrupter like President Trump comes into office, how excited do you think the SES is to see him and his swarm of political appointees? It does not take much to assume they have no interest in Trump’s plans. They dislike them and often leak selectively to their friendly press.

There you have it: your deep state.