Pinning My Hopes on the “Iron Triangle.”

In the Public Interest issues a weekly privatization report, detailing efforts around the country to “outsource” management of public programs to the private sector. This interesting nugget was reported in a recent one:

Emanuel Savas, one of the key figures driving the privatization agenda for the right wing for five decades, has some advice for Donald Trump on “personnel”: follow Reagan. “Early in his administration, Reagan held frequent cabinet meetings, sometimes two or three a week, the principal purpose of which was to acclimate the members of his cabinet to the idea that they worked for the president, not for the Iron Triangle. By coming so frequently to the White House, Reagan’s appointees bonded with their peers—and with the president. If he is to avoid the threat to his agenda posed by the Iron Triangle, Trump should follow Reagan’s lead.” The “iron triangle” is “(1) the permanent employees of a department or agency; (2) the congressional committees with a stake in the growth of—and deference to—a corresponding executive department or agency; (3) the department or agency’s constituents.”

I hadn’t heard the phrase “iron triangle,” but anyone teaching public policy or government administration is familiar with the phenomenon of “capture”–the undeniable tendency of agency employees, Congressional committees and even the businesses or industries being regulated to resist proposed changes to business as usual.

Humans have a tendency to prefer the known to the unknown, to feel uneasy when rules and structures with which we are comfortable are upended. Typically, this resistance to change is considered a problem to be overcome, and it can be a barrier to needed reforms.

But it can also be a safeguard against unwise or ill-advised change.

Government agencies are staffed with workers having professional expertise in the agency’s mission. The political appointees who come and go with various administrations may or may not know very much about those missions; in the era of Trump, we have been treated to a lineup of nominees who have displayed a stunning ignorance of the rules they will be expected to enforce and/or dismissive of the challenges their agencies are meant to confront.

When ideologues hostile to science and evidence are put in charge of agencies staffed by people who actually know what they’re doing and why they are doing it, that staff can slow– or even in some cases subvert– efforts meant to undermine the work of the agency.

In just the first week since his inauguration, Trump and a number of his cabinet nominees have displayed a total lack of understanding of how American government actually works. (If we are to believe the numerous leaks from his still-skeletal White House staff, Trump himself has very little interest in learning how it works.)  Politico recently reported that the administration issued its flurry of Executive Orders without bothering to check whether there were laws or practical impediments to their enforcement.

The breakneck pace of Trump’s executive actions might please his supporters, but critics are questioning whether the documents are being rushed through without the necessary review from agency experts and lawmakers who will bear the burden of actually carrying them out. For example, there are legal questions on how the country can force companies building pipelines to use materials manufactured domestically, which might not be available or which could violate trade treaty obligations. There’s also the question of whether the federal government can take billions from cities who don’t comply with immigration enforcement actions: Legal experts said it was unclear.

“You want to make sure when you’re dealing with high stakes, important issues you’re getting the best information from the breadth of expertise that exists in government,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that supports the civil service. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”….

By contrast, the Obama White House ran executive orders through a painstaking weeks-long process of soliciting feedback from agencies and briefing lawmakers, according to a former official. Sometimes it even asked expert lawyers in the private sector to check its work.

Being President is nothing at all like being the CEO of a family-owned business, and that recognition will come as a very unwelcome surprise to the Man Who Would Be King.