Berman: We know that if Congress doesn’t appropriate the money, the government can’t spend it. But does it work in reverse? If Congress wants to appropriate money for programs or for agencies, can the government choose not to spend it, or are they required to spend what Congress gives them?
Stier: They don’t have to spend everything that Congress gives them, and in fact, the agencies often try to spend the money that Congress gives them because they’re worried that by not doing so, it will look like they don't actually need the money. So there are some perverse incentives that exist out there.
Congress can tell the executive what it should be doing, what it should be trying to achieve, and it can then appropriate money in order to do it, but the administration doesn't have to spend all that money to make that happen.
Berman: So as we’ve talked about, they are behind in staffing up below the Cabinet level, both in the Senate-confirmed positions and in the ones that don't require Senate confirmation. Is it putting the cart before the horse? How can they expect to get good recommendations for reorganizing the government before they actually have people in these agencies seeing how they are functioning?
Stier: In an ideal world, they would have their team on the ground. The clock is not their friend, nor is it ever any new administration’s friend. The time goes fast. The demands are overwhelming. To make changes in the way the government is managed requires you to be smart about using every minute you have. So I don't think they have the luxury of waiting to have their entire team in place before they move forward on these issues.
The content and the substance are much more likely to be coming from the career team than anywhere else. They understand what the problems are and what the best solutions are, what's been tried in the past, what's failed and why, and what's worked better than anybody else.
Berman: In its appointments process, in what areas would you give the Trump administration the best grades—where have they excelled the most—and where have they stumbled the most?
Stier: Well, they're behind. To be clear, no prior administration has done this process well. And right now, the Trump administration is further behind even these historical norms. I think that's become even more problematic because the world is a more dangerous and faster-moving place, and part of what you need is a team that can react effectively and quickly in this very challenging environment. So they moved quickly on getting a Cabinet named, but beyond that, they're falling behind the historical norms, which in my view are themselves not good enough.
Berman: Just because political appointees aren’t in these agencies doesn’t mean they are a sea of empty desks. There are temporary people and career civil servants staffing the government. What is the practical difference? Beyond the simple numbers, why does it matter that the political appointees aren’t in place?