Civil Servants Aren’t in the Administration

An irresponsible Trump-era practice continues.

Flag and people

A recent POLITICO Playbook story is headlined “Biden’s Deep State is on Substack” and breathlessly reports,

In a carefully-scripted rollout that included a wonky blog post, $1 billion aid package, and a presidential roundtable with farmers and ranchers, President JOE BIDEN pointed the finger at large meat processing corporations for artificially inflating prices during the pandemic—what the White House called “pandemic profiteering.” The move was applauded by anti-monopoly advocates. But when it came to immediately dealing with inflation, it was dismissed by some Democraticeconomic commentators as little more than political theater.

One of those commentators just happens to work in the administration.

That’s big news. Who was it? Vice President Harris? Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo? Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack?

It turns out, no.

“The White House pinned the blame for rising meat prices on the meat processing oligopoly…But are corporate profits even really to blame for the rise in inflation? In short, no,” JOEY POLITANO, an analyst at the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, wrote in his economic policy-focusedSubstack,

Who, you might ask, is Joey Politano?

It turns out he’s a 23-year-old who graduated George Washington University with a BA in political science and economics in 2018, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer for ten months before COVID shortened the tour, and got hired on with BLS in October 2020—during the Trump administration but, crucially, not in an appointed or policymaking role.

The Playbook team, headed up by White House correspondent Alex Thompson, knows this. Indeed, it included the details further down in the story.

So, why falsely describe him as a member of the administration? He ain’t. Not even remotely.

Eventually, they get to a non-sensationalistic angle that’s mildly interesting:

Economic punditry is everywhere, and virtually everyone following politics these days has a take to share. Still, it’s unusual for civil servants in the executive branch— known mostly for keeping their heads down and rarely speaking on the record—to publish their own analyses on the administration for which they work. And, to a small degree, it shows a new hurdle that administrations now have to deal with. In an era where everyone can be a publisher, even the bureaucrats are posting.

But I don’t think even this is that noteworthy. Blogging, arguably the original social media, has been around more than two decades but likely peaked just as Twitter was coming on the scene. There probably aren’t that many civil servants blogging, much less with their own Substack, at this point. But I’d imagine a goodly number of them have Twitter, Instagram, and other social media accounts where they offer up their views. Hell, there was practically a cottage industry of bureaucrats mocking Trump during his tenure.

Which, yes, is mostly allowed. As Politano tells Playbook:

“People tend to underestimate the first amendment protections federal employees get. I’ve even done a couple podcasts/interviews,” Politano told us. “No real internal rules. As long as I put the disclaimer in, use publicly available data/sources, don’t use government time/resources, and don’t make any money I can basically write whatever I want.”

Which is as it should be.

But, again, it’s simply irresponsible to conflate the professional civil service with a President’s administration. Trump famously railed against “the Deep State” and purged “Obama holdovers” from the top levels of government. It undermines the system. And the press—let alone the people who cover the White House—should not contribute to this nonsense.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Media, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tim D. says:

    Yes, that’s a good summary of 1st Amendment for federal employees! I would even add that (up to reasonable limits) the freedom of federal workers to speak publicly is an important part of protecting scientific integrity in federal agencies. Remember when TFG took a sharpie to the hurricane map?

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  2. Kurtz says:

    My favorite part is the quote on his LinkedIn page.

    I had the privilege of working with Joseph at the Union County Magnet High School for 4 years. He is proactive, responsible, has unparalleled technical skills, and is always ready to put all his energy and time to get the job done. He is a great asset to any company.

    I can think of two people who displayed unparalleled technical skills at the age of 23: Orson Welles and Patrick Mahomes. Not exactly regular Joes.

    Then again that quote was written by a high school classmate of Politano, which raises a few questions.

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  3. Matt Bernius says:

    Great post James and spot on. When I first saw the headline I was a little concerned that the Biden administration was following the Trump administration’s lead of politicizing civil service positions.

    I’m glad to see that isn’t the case (what I’ve heard from folks I know working at the Federal level is that so far there has been a lot of work to return to a pre-2016 state and trying to rebuild the ranks).

    Also 100% to what @Tim D. said as well.

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It turns out he’s a 23-year-old who graduated George Washington University with a BA in political science and economics in 2018, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer for ten months before COVID shortened the tour, and got hired on with BLS in October 2020—

    Maybe I’m confused. Is he currently 23 years old? If so he must be quite the wunderkind to have managed all that while a teenager.

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  5. Matt Bernius says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    According to his linkedin page, he finished college in three years (perhaps AP credits were involved). Beyond that it’s a pretty standard resume for an entry-level government analyst position.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @Matt Bernius: The age is from the POLITICO piece, so possibly more shoddy reporting. But, yeah, graduating college at 20 and getting an entry level GS gig at 22 isn’t unusual.

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  7. gVOR08 says:

    Under the Unitary Executive theory wouldn’t all Executive branch personnel be part of the administration? In fact I seem to recall some fringe GOP agitation for eliminating Civil Service because it blunted presidential authority. And I believe the Federalist Society likes the Unitary Executive stuff. So a few Court decisions into the next GOP presidency obscure analysts at BLS may well be members of the administration. Maybe Politico is just ahead of the curve.

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  8. Kingdaddy says:

    Politico and The Hill could disappear tomorrow, and the world would happily continue spinning on its axis.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: As a general principle, I think there’s merit to the Unitary Executive thesis. The President really is the Executive Branch according to Article II.

    The problem, as with so many of these things, is that the Constitution was written in the year of our lord 1787. Most of what the various executive departments and agencies do would have been unfathomable to the Framers. Further, the vast majority of these functions are actually express powers of the Legislative Branch under Article I. They’ve put them under the Executive because there’s no practical alternative. It strikes me as reasonable that Congress ought to be able to write laws as to how the non-policymaking employees carrying out these functions operate.

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