Boston University

The Danger of Bureaucratic Resistance by Rachel Bennetts @ Boston University

It is easy for many to say, because he is so popular, that bureaucratic resistance against the Administration of President Trump is warranted. In the interview conducted by Dave Kestenbaum for Chicago Public Media, a DOE employee in explains how easy and common it is to impede the actions and goals of an administration. Methods for resistance include referring documents for review, “losing” documents, and even hiding projects, programs, and reports from the new administration. While some ay argue that these civil servants may be experts because they have been in the job for a long time, and the civil servants themselves may even believe they are protecting democratic principles, there is an inherent danger of allowing bureaucrats to define and apply the law and procedures piecemeal.

While to many Americans it may not seem like much, the power that an individual (or a small group of) bureaucrats can be very damaging and corrupting. This can be seen in the 2010-2012 IRS targeting scandal, and the four year subsequent investigation. The scandal involved a number of partisan employees stalling the Tax-Exemption Status applications of conservative groups, especially those affiliated with the Tea Party, and to a lesser extent, the progressive far left. The scandal involved employees, inspired by their personal beliefs, purposefully using their bureaucratic power to slow down their applications through delaying processing and asking for unnecessary forms and documents. A report made by the Office of the Treasury Inspector General for the Tax Administration (part of the investigation) showed that 1/3 of cases flagged for specialist review, a tactic used to delay application processing, were cases associated with the Tea Party. During the same period, there were a number of moderate and liberal groups that were approved for tax-exempt status without disproportionate scrutiny.

This is an illustration of how non-cooperative actions by partisan bureaucrats can damage democratic values. While I do not personally agree with the Tea Party’s platform, nor did those bureaucrats who slowed their applications, it not is up to them any more than it is to me, how and when to apply the law. There is a reason that there are institutionalized criteria and rules to decide their tax exemption status, and other government processes: they ensure the peaceful transfer of power and durability of democratic institutions. The standardized systematic enforcement of laws is as much a cornerstone of democracy, as is political freedom.

While the targeting scandal was resolved following a congressional investigation, the danger of the hidden actions of civil servants still stands. These actions, when conducted on a larger scale, can lead to the formation of a deep state, or shadow government, and the undermine of democracy altogether. If the current crop of civil servants under the administration cannot comply with the application of the law, regardless of partisan views, they should resign in the name of the values they claim to protect.


  1. Amalia Perez

    December 4, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    Bureaucracy is often as consequential an arm of the government as the executive itself. Your article rightfully points to this.

    I want to offer a slight qualification to your argument. It is not that bureaucracies in and of themselves are threats to democracy; rather, bureaucracies staffed through nepotistic patronage networks are threats. Meritocratic bureaucracies, by contrast, are unparalleled defenders of democracy.

    Evans (1997), arguing that meritocratic bureaucracies are the key to ensuring the state is not predatorial, shows how bureaucracies increases the probability that states and their internal networks will be growth seeking, not rent-seeking. Huq and Ginsburg continued in this vein, emphasizing a bureaucracy as a check on central power.

    I guess, then, that I am conducted a cost-benefit analysis of sorts of bureaucracies. Taking into account the valid points you make about the potential pitfalls of bureaucracies, then juxtaposed with their irrefutable boon for democracy, I would argue that the later supersedes the former. Bureaucracies do more good than harm.

  2. Isabela Karibjanian

    December 5, 2017 at 5:14 am

    I agree with you that having an entire bureaucracy with a coordinated political agenda that runs contrary to the goals of the administration it purportedly serves is dangerous. However, I do not believe that civil servants should be required to resign if they earnestly believe that the laws the administration is asking them to execute fundamentally run contrary to the Constitution or would irreparably damage the American democracy. Yes, there is a risk in bureaucrats making these judgment calls on their own on which extra-legal principles are valid or invalid to act upon, but civil servants are the greatest source of institutional memory in the government and are among the people most poised to make such a call in extreme circumstances. I do not believe this means that they should do everything in their power to stall every action the administration asks them to take, as that would defeat the purpose of the bureaucracy executing the policies of the executive branch. However, I do believe it can serve as an important stabilizing force of sorts in extreme cases (but I would not go as far to say that it should be a check on executive power, as that is extra-constitutional).

    I also think it is interesting to consider the public reception to the rise of the “alt” Twitter accounts shortly following President Trump’s inauguration. I think their popularity and cult following (and the public’s apparent desire to see them completely sabotage the entirety of the incoming administration’s agenda) is worrisome. Bureaucratic institutions should be a stabilizing force during volatile political times, not arms of one political ideology.

  3. Why bureaucratic resistance is not a fundamental threat to democracy by Isabela Karibjanian @ Brown University – Democratic Erosion

    December 12, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    […] Bennetts recently argued in “The Danger of Bureaucratic Resistance” that bureaucrats with too much agency directly threaten the sanctity of the American democracy. […]

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