Adam White on the Proper Role of Bureaucrats

On November 4th, 2017, Adam White spoke at the Buckley Program’s conference on The Constitution and the Courts.

Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and director of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, where he also teaches Administrative Law. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he previously practiced law at Boyden Gray & Associates PLLC and Baker Botts LLP, litigating regulatory and constitutional issues. His articles appear in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and other publications, and he is a contributing editor for National Affairs, City Journal, and The New Atlantis.

The Buckley Program had the chance to interview Mr. White at the Omni Hotel in New Haven, CT. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited from a longer interview.

By: Alexander Sikorski

Alexander: Do you think that unelected officials threaten our democracy?

Adam: I’d say that giving too much power to unelected officials threatens democracy. Ultimately, unelected officials are going to have power, only because the president and attorney general and cabinet secretaries cannot administer all the laws themselves, so it requires them and all of us to rely on bureaucracy. The problem though is when we give these unelected officials too much power without accountability. And that goes for not only bureaucrats but also true of unelected judges, who have an important role to play in our government, but who aren’t in charge of the government.

Alexander: In recent politics, the image of the faceless bureaucrat has become a rallying point for voters tired with the current system. For example in the UK last year, part of the motivation for the Leave vote was to get away from bureaucrats in Brussels. Is this fear justified? Does this fear have dangerous consequences?

Adam: I think it’s justified in that a lot of what’s happening right now in American politics, or at least the debates over administration, I think it was spurred not just because we’ve just had a Democratic president, we’ve had lots of Democratic presidents, but that we’ve had a Democratic president who was willing to unilaterally impose immensely consequential programs through the regulatory process, or through administrative or executive power. Whether it was the Clean Power Plan, which was an unprecedented takeover of national energy policy, or the FCC’s Open Internet order, an unprecedented direct regulation of broadband internet service, which is in this day and age the backbone of our economy and communications, I think the fact that we saw such immensely consequential programs done by as you say faceless bureaucrats really has moved the public to act, and so I think what we see now in demands for greater accountability is appropriate.

Alexander: In your talk, you mentioned that the trend of leaks coming from the administration was “horrifying”. How should unelected administrators fight against a president that they might deem to be against American interests. Should they remain silent in the face of disturbing if not illegal actions taken by a president, or should they speak out?

Adam: What I found horrifying wasn’t just the leaks but also the so called resistance movement, the people who called themselves the resistance and said that they would stop the things that this administration does that we don’t like. Of course civil servants should always blow the whistle on truly illegal activity and on corruption, and civil servants should elevate to their bosses issues like waste and inefficiency. That’s extremely important. And since the civil service is really the eyes on the ground, they will see these things faster than the leadership at the top. And so it is important that they speak up, but we need to distinguish between whistle blowing for illegal activity, and trying to thwart policies that a given civil servant doesn’t like because he prefers the previous administration’s policy. And when you have the bureaucracy serving as the defenders of the previous administration’s ideology, that can cause a breakdown of our administrative government.

Alexander: A lot of commentators have called these administrators and workers in the government a sinister “deep state”, who fight against the policy of the new administration through undermining leaks. However do you think that there is any merit in the existence of a deep state that can maintain a continuous set of values and policies over the course of any administrations.

Adam: Deep state is always such a loaded term; I’d much rather stay away from it myself. Whatever label we want to put on it, I think you’re correct to have a civil service that maintains a continuity of knowledge and expertise in the work of government. Expertise doesn’t really go to value judgements. The new administration is just as capable of making value judgements as the previous one. And so I agree that it’s important for us to develop a civil service that is expert and provides a continuity on the matters on which continuity is appropriate. When it goes too far though, and just blocks a new administration’s policies for ideological reasons, that’s a mistake and a danger. I also think that that in and of itself undermines the public confidence in the civil service.

Alexander Sikorski is a sophomore in Pierson College.