Please Politicize the State Department and FDA; It Beats the Alternative

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The latest line of attack against President Donald Trump is that he’s inserting politics into government matters.

This has come up on at least two fronts recently — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech to the Republican National Convention, and the federal Food and Drug Administration’s emergency-use approval of convalescent plasma as a therapy for Covid-19 patients. In both cases, it’s an attack that reflects more poorly on the assumptions of Trump’s critics than on Trump himself.

Start with Pompeo. The case against having him speak to the convention is summed up in an NBC News story headlined “Diplomats aghast as Pompeo set to address GOP convention in Jerusalem.” The NBC article described the step as “breaking with long-standing traditions aimed at isolating American’s foreign policy from partisan battles at home.” It quoted one former diplomat who spent “35 years in the foreign service,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, complaining, “Pompeo is clearly ensuring the State Department is politicized.”

USA Today quoted Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and another longtime State Department hand, as calling Pompeo’s appearance “unprecedented” and  “inappropriate.”

There is indeed a risk that some president, seeking re-election, would put his own short-term political interests ahead of the long-term national security interests of the United States. But the bigger risk, by far, is that American foreign policy is set by long-term, unaccountable bureaucrats like Miller or Thomas-Greenfield rather than by the presidents elected by and accountable to the voters.

If the U.S. Constitution wanted to set up a State Department outside politics it could have done so; instead it gave the president “Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur” and  to nominate and appoint Ambassadors, also with the advice and consent of the Senate. There’s nothing in the Constitution about a Secretary of State or a Foreign Service existing outside of the authority or control of someone elected by the voters.

One could imagine such schemes — say, a foreign policy set by a self-perpetuating panel chosen by the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations and the dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. But there is nothing to recommend that idea of having policy set or implemented by individuals who retain their jobs permanently regardless of how badly they screw up. It’s that sort of attitude that leads to a backlash against the “deep state,” or the “blob” or the permanent government workers known as “we bes” for — “We be here before you’re here. We be here after you’re here.”

When the State Department adopts that point of view, it just leads presidents to work around the diplomats by moving more of the foreign policy action to the National Security Council, which is based at the White House. I’m old enough to remember President Bill Clinton assigning Miller and Dennis Ross to work on Arab-Israeli peace matters precisely to get around the prior State Department careerists so insulated from American public opinion that Clinton knew Israeli officials would not trust them.

President Jack Kennedy’s aide Ted Sorensen, based on the experience with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, wrote in his 2008 book Counselor, “The White House is inherently a political institution. That is why I have not joined those, in subsequent years, who lamented that any particular president was playing politics with foreign policy … Of course he is playing politics — the president in a democracy is required to play politics with every issue, if this country is to be governed with the consent of the governed.”

The same reasoning applies to the Food and Drug Administration. Sure, there is indeed a risk that some president, seeking re-election, would put his own short-term political interests ahead of public health and rush through the approval of an unsafe medicine or one that is manufactured by a campaign donor. But such intervention carries its own political downside. Again, the bigger risk is that the drug-approval process is slowed by being so thoroughly insulated from politics that the bureaucrats keep their jobs forever regardless of how many roadblocks or unreasonable obstacles they impose between a medicine and the marketplace. In fact, the more difficult, arduous, and arbitrary the process is, the greater the value of the bureaucrats in their lucrative post-government careers on the other side of the revolving door, advising drug companies on how to get drugs approved.

As National Public Radio put it in a 2016 story, “More than a quarter of the Food and Drug Administration employees who approved cancer and hematology drugs from 2001 through 2010 left the agency and now work or consult for pharmaceutical companies.” At least Trump’s personal political incentives are for speedy cures, rather than opaque and complex approval processes. The Food and Drug Administration director, Stephen Hahn, insisted, “We at FDA do not permit politics to enter into our scientific decisions.”

At least five then-sitting Obama cabinet members — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — addressed the 2012 Democratic convention, according to Vox. President George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary, Elaine Chao, spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Like a lot about the Trump administration, what the press and partisan critics claim is “unprecedented” actually has precedent. And for good reason. It’s healthy for cabinet secretaries, and even FDA employees, to be reminded that they work for the people.


Ira Stoll is editor of and author of JFK, Conservative.