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If Trump is reelected, the independence of federal agencies could be at risk

Russell Vought, former Trump administration director of the Office of Management and Budget, listens during a news briefing on March 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. Vought is currently president of the think tank, The Center for Renewing America.
Alex Wong
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Russell Vought, former Trump administration director of the Office of Management and Budget, listens during a news briefing on March 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. Vought is currently president of the think tank, The Center for Renewing America.

Updated August 16, 2023 at 6:41 AM ET

A victory of former President Donald Trump in next year's election could reshape the U.S. government and significantly increase his presidential powers. Trump and his allies have been drawing up plans to curtail the independence of some federal agencies and remove civil service protections from many senior federal employees.

The idea is to remove some limits to the president's power, following up on efforts Trump made just before leaving office like the executive order he signed known as "Schedule F." It would have turned tens of thousands of federal employees into at-will employees, making them easier to replace. President Biden repealed the order on his third day as president.

Over the years, Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the federal government system, often spewing phrases like "drain the swamp" or "destroy the deep state." And based on some of his more recent campaign events, those negative feelings seem to have only intensified since he left office. "Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state," the former president said at a rally in March.

Trump's allies have turned this rhetoric into concrete policy plans. One of those allies is Russell Vought, who served as Trump's director of the Office of Management and Budget. He's among a group of conservative strategists and policy experts who want to change the way the government operates to better support a president's agenda.

"Civil servants should be oriented toward accomplishing the agenda of a president — not the office of the president, not their institutions," Vought said to NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview for Morning Edition.

Should civil servants serve the agency or the president?

Vought takes issue with so-called independent federal agencies, which were established by Congress and are considered part of the executive branch. They have regulatory authority and are insulated from presidential control.

"The notion that career civil servants are just kind of working away expertly and don't have a political agenda is not true," said Vought, who is the president of the conservative think tank Center for Renewing America. "They should be working for the agenda of a president that gets elected by voters. And that is not the case."

Agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission are considered independent agencies. Vought believes those agencies should not have the authority to make decisions that might go against a president's agenda.

"It's unhealthy for a constitutional republic to be in a situation where major policy decisions are being made and no one who's democratically elected is in charge of the shop," he said.

Vought and other Trump associates reject the whole idea of independent federal agencies, which are sometimes referred to as the "administrative state." They want to curb their power by bringing them under presidential control and requiring a White House review for proposed regulation.

Trump is not the first president who has taken issue with independent agencies and federal employees who might not support a president's agenda, said Jane Manners, an associated law professor at Temple University.

"President Biden, when he came in, was frustrated that he didn't have the ability to appoint all of the people he would want to appoint to all the various agencies. It's a long-term frustration," she said.

Keeping federal agencies independent from influence

The first federal agency was the Interstate Commerce Commission created in 1887 to ensure fair railroad rates and competition. Congress later created new commissions to regulate other economic activities like power, communications, water and eventually banking and trade.

These regulatory agencies with rulemaking powers are different from executive departments that are led by an appointed cabinet member such as the secretary of education and serve the office of the president. Regulatory agencies are often led by a board, that can be required to be a bipartisan board, and protected from being removed by the president.

Congress had hoped that by removing political influence from regulatory agencies, the rulemaking would result in fairer outcomes and higher efficiency.

"Under the previous regime, often referred to as the spoils system, both political parties were giving out government jobs on the basis of patronage," Manners said. "They would reward loyal party members with cushy government jobs and we ended up with a situation where you had not only corruption, but you just had a wasteful, ineffective government with people on the payroll who didn't have particular expertise in the role."

Manner, who has examined the legal structure of independent agencies, said she finds it somewhat ironic that those who now want to get rid of these agencies are using the same language, describing them as wasteful, inefficient and intrusive.

Vought says some policy decisions have wide-ranging implications and should be debated in Congress or opened up to executive review rather than being negotiated behind closed doors. He and other Trump allies argue that limiting the power of federal independent agencies would further a president's agenda and increase transparency in the policymaking process.

While some of Vought's grievances have been echoed by other policy experts, it's the expansion of presidential powers that worries people on the left.

Trump, who is the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, despite his mounting legal problems, said in June that he would "obliterate the deep state" should he return to office. After his third indictment last week, Trump made clear that he will go after those who did him wrong.

"If you go after me, I'm coming after you," Trump said in a post on Truth Social.

The Justice Department is not a fully fledged independent agency, meaning the president has the power to appoint and remove the attorney general. Following the Watergate scandal, Congress briefly considered making it an independent agency in response to President Richard Nixon abusing his powers and using the agency for political purposes.

Critics of the former president, particularly Democrats, fear that if he is reelected, Trump would use his presidential powers to drop any pending investigation or federal criminal case against himself.

Vought claims that while Trump would have the authority to do so, he doesn't believe Trump would do that.

"I am not predicting that a president that is exercising those authorities in that power is going to make unwise decisions," he said. "I think you can absolutely trust Donald Trump not to do that."

With the Constitution not providing a definite answer to the extent of executive power, American democracy remains a work in progress.

Taylor Haney produced the audio version of this story. Erika Aguilar edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.