Dismantling the Deep State

When I was just a boy, people said of federal employment that federal workers traded the higher salaries of the private sector for job security.  If that was true then, it’s certainly not true now. Although estimates vary, federal workers probably enjoy at least a 20 percent advantage in pay over their private sector counterparts, in addition to job security, and the most generous benefits of any industry.

According to the Cato Institute, the federal government has the fourth highest-paid workers after only utilities, mining, and management of companies. Nationwide the average salary of a federal worker is $86,365, compared to $58,726 for a worker in the private sector, but in Washington, D.C., the average salary of a federal worker is significantly higher, at $112,601.

And it is not only federal workers in D.C. that are well paid, as these high federal salaries set the bar for salaries in all the ancillary industries in the area; the consultants, contractors, institutes and think tanks that subsist directly on government largesse. In fact, these “private sector” service providers might better be included in the class of federal workers, as their employment is wholly dependent on federal funding.

In addition to the federal workers and service providers who are direct recipients of federal monies, many more subsist indirectly on the government concentration in Washington; and this class consists of everyone from the food truck drivers that feed federal workers, to the lawyers and journalists who are there solely because of the concentration of wealth and power in the area.

About one-fifth (21.5 percent) of all federal workers are in Maryland, D.C., or Virginia. The stability of employment and real wealth of these workers is seen in the incredibly high cost of real estate in the region, where a 1950s-era 880 square-foot starter home in the suburbs can easily set you back half a million dollars. The enormous wealth is also reflected by the fact that the four richest counties in the US surround Washington, D.C., while five others in the region make it into the top 20.

These direct and indirect dependents of the federal government live in an unnatural bubble, protected from the economic and political concerns of ordinary Americans by lifetime employment and high salaries. Concentrated in the D.C. area, they are largely ignorant of conditions in other parts of the country. Increasingly, they think of themselves as a separate ruling class, a self-perpetuating and permanent aristocracy, naturally superior to ordinary people living in “fly-over” country that they govern.

Because they live together, work together, and share dependence on the government, they have similar concerns and a common outlook, and over time this has resulted in an increasingly homogenous political perspective. Although we do not know exactly how federal employees voted, we do know that overall 95 percent of their presidential campaign contributions went to Hillary Clinton, with some departments (like State, Agriculture, and Education) giving her more than 99 percent of their contributions. This is clearly unrepresentative of the country at large, in which 29 percent identify as Democrats, 25 percent as Republicans, and 42 percent as independents, and about half voted for Donald Trump.

Although out of touch, unelected, and largely unaccountable, the federal bureaucracy in Washington (the “deep state”) remains immensely powerful, and as its power grows, democracy and self-government are proportionally weakened. Past efforts to reform the bureaucracy have proved ineffectual, as the deep state has worked to protect its privilege and job security, enacting laws and regulations and forming public sector unions that make significant pay reductions or lay-offs extremely difficult.

President Trump came into office on a promise to “drain the swamp,” to reduce the power and influence of the federal bureaucracy, and one of his first acts was the implementation of a federal hiring freeze. While this will reduce the overall federal workforce over time, it leaves the core of the entrenched Washington bureaucracy intact. It also leaves the senior leadership in place, many of whom are former political appointees that have “burrowed in” to the permanent civil service, and it is these officials that are the most unaccountable, and most engaged in undermining the president’s agenda.

To further dismantle the deep state, and make the government more accountable, and more representative of the average American, there are several additional reforms the administration might consider. The first is decentralization. With modern advances in communications technology, and the ease with which people and goods can move around, there is no real rationale for the concentration of government agencies around Washington, D.C. The administration, whenever practical, should consider moving agencies out of the D.C. area, and distributing them across the country.

Wherever possible, the agencies could be located in areas of the country most relevant to their mission. For example, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Health could be moved to Mississippi, one of the least developed and least healthy states. Housing and Urban Development could be moved to Detroit, and the Department of Agriculture to Kansas or Nebraska. In addition to bringing federal workers closer to the issues they are meant to be working on, decentralization would have several other positive benefits.

First, many government workers, unwilling to live in “fly-over” country, would voluntarily leave government service, facilitating rapid reduction in personnel. Second, the cost of government would decrease substantially due to fewer personnel and lower rents. Third, the taxes that fund government salaries and operations would be spread more equitably across the country, rather than being concentrated in one area, fueling broader economic prosperity. Fourth, government workers would be more exposed to the concerns and aspirations of ordinary Americans, and over time would become less politically homogenous and more reflective of the country as a whole.

In addition to decentralization, the administration might consider restoring the old bargain for government workers—low pay but job security—by indexing government pay to some private sector median. Alternatively, it could be higher pay (i.e. at current levels), but with the end of lifetime employment. Term limits on employment would bring government closer to the people, and facilitate the adoption of the latest management and technology advancements by the public sector, as people from the business sector took a few years off to do a tour in government service.

Reforms like these may seem radical to some, but actually they are quite reasonable measures to reduce the cost and size of government, and reinvigorate democracy. They may be difficult to implement in full immediately, but if the principle is established that federal workers and agencies should not be concentrated in one area, but should be distributed across the country, then change will come. Over time, federal workers would cease to be a ruling class, and return to their proper role as public servants, working for and accountable to their fellow citizens.

About Sean Brodie

Sean Brodie is the pseudonym of a Washington, D.C.-based political specialist, who works for an organization that would be profoundly affected by reforms he proposes.

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8 responses to “Dismantling the Deep State”

  1. IF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP can drain the swamp he will go down in history as one of America’s greatest presidents. The so-called ‘Deep State’ is getting rich at taxpayer expense.

  2. You touched on an important but under-reported issue:
    It also leaves the senior leadership in place, many of whom are former political appointees that have “burrowed in” to the permanent civil service, and it is these officials that are the most unaccountable, and most engaged in undermining the president’s agenda.

    This needs to be fixed legislatively, with a line somewhere in USC, which simply states,
    Any political appointee confirmed after January 1, 1989 can be terminated at will, regardless of civil service or other status.

    The date can be negotiated, or even eliminated, but it was chosen to flush out any Bush appointees.

  3. The first is decentralization. With modern advances in communications technology, and the ease with which people and goods can move around, there is no real rationale for the concentration of government agencies around Washington, D.C. The administration, whenever practical, should consider moving agencies out of the D.C. area, and distributing them across the country.

    Here, here!!! There is no defensible reason to concentrate the departments into one location in the modern era, and the benefits of decentralization would be enormous.

    We also don’t attract the best and brightest because Treasury isn’t located in New York or Interior in Nevada because people don’t want to relocate to D.C. With this very “civilian” Administration we’ve seen the hardships that imposes. This has been a major bloggy horse for me many, many years and if the Trump Administration were to take serious steps in this direction I personally would want to be part of the effort.

    The Deep State is a cancer on democracy but it’s easy to see how it came into being due in part to the ridiculous centralization, which smacks more of the old Soviet Union than the United States.

  4. There’s a database available on the Internet at


    that shows federal salaries. Many people might be surprised at the high pay of the top people in the federal government. Here is a small list of the 100th highest salary (i.e., there were 99 people who made even more) at a sample of federal agencies in 2016:

    $211,439 at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
    $179,700 at the EPA
    $181,500 at the IRS (2015)
    $169,918 at the Department of Education
    $114,415 at the Department of the Interior
    $185,100 at the Department of Transportation
    $139,523 at the BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS

    • The problem is not so much the high pay of the people in the top; a high-level executive at a federal agency can easily be supervising thousands of employees and supervising a nine-figure budget. People with that kind of responsibility, if anything, can make more in the private sector.

      The real problem is with the salaries of the (vastly more numerous) worker bees. A janitor or receptionist or the like can be in the same job for twenty years, doing just enough not to get fired (a really, really low bar in the fed), and easily wind up making $90k annually. Multiply that by a few thousand people each in a few hundred agencies and THAT’s the problem.

      We’d be much better off raising the salaries at the top in order to get and keep executive talent … IF we gave them the authority, via civil service reform, to run their agencies in a rational way.

  5. How about banning Federal government employee unions? I expect any congressmen from Tea Party states would be in favor.

    Also, a Constitutional Amendment requiring all Federal programs and agencies to be sunsetted or reauthorized after fixed periods would help to curtail their rampant proliferation. Mark Levin in his Liberty Amendments has proposed this, and other salutary Amendments, which might require an Article 5 Convention of States, but could be initiated by a ‘swam-draining’ Trump administration.

    /Mr Lynn

  6. The root of the problem is not economic but motivational, not to say ideological. It sounds like a truism but few seem to seriously consider it: if you establish an agency whose purpose is to do something, the people who show up to work there every day are going to do it. If they are good, hard-working, decent people, which all of us always agree they mostly are, then they are going to do it with enthusiasm and drive. Moreover, the people who work there are going to be the kind of people who were motivated to do it beforehand, which is why they work there.

    So for instance, when you establish an agency whose purpose is to “protect” the environment (for example), its people are going to do just that, every single day of the week. This protection will not consist of showing up each day to monitor meters and readouts measuring compliance with protective measures devised long ago when they were actually needed (like companies dumping toxic waste in reservoirs). That is the nuclear plant model of protection: the engineers keep their eyes on the meters; they don’t add new meters of their own devising or add new parts onto the plant. But that is not how administrative agencies function.

    It will never come about that the agency staff decide one day that the environment does not require some additional protective measures. There will always be something that can be cast as a danger and specifically regulated. They are protectors; their mission is to protect! Once someone has protected this thing in that way, someone else will want to protect that thing in this way. And so on. Otherwise, why are we even here, they ask. The entire culture in which they are immersed, where the highest good is “productivity,” encourages them to ABP–Always Be Producing, as Blake might say; coffee is for Producers! You can’t produce, you don’t innovate or lead, merely by administering a regulation that someone else long before you implemented. You must add your own stamp. “I Was Here!” I protected the environment! This is a basic human drive and to assume it does not apply to the staff of all our various regulatory agencies is dangerously naive.

    There is no fix for this fact of human psychology and behavior other than to eliminate the agency or to convert it into a nuclear power plant model whose staff merely show up and record measurements taken from meters already put in place without adding more of their own.

  7. Great article. Decentralization is one I have thought about fir awhile. Then freeze pay for about 5-7 years. Then start hacking apart duplicate staffs; just inside the DoD budget system there are layers at the MAJCOMS, Departments, OSD, JCS, and various congressional committees all doing the same thing. Oh yeah, freeze pay. Also, they need to get rid of civilians that replaced military, and put the military back in. Freeze pay. I saw lots of Mil to Contr to Civ conversions. Freeze pay. The military needs those for a variety of reasons: backfill, staff “rest” positions, expertise in weapon system, etc. Freeze pay. Finally, leadership needs the motivation and power to fire people when they are worthless, not needed, restructured, etc. Did I mention freeze pay,