I had a good conversation yesterday at the ISA with a former student as we argued a basic point--does it matter to the individual Customs Border Protection agent whether Congress is not engaged in oversight. This conversation reminded me how often I am wrong.... alas.
I argued last month that one hope in the Trump era is that the various agencies would shirk--would do less than what Trump wanted, would perhaps undermine his policies by implementing them in ways that Trump/President Bannon didn't intend. It turns out that it probably depends on the agencies and the agents more than I speculated.
My original post was about the CIA, which had been attacked by Trump and might just have heaps of people who see Trump as a threat to the US. What we can learn from the immigration fiascoes is that the ICE/CBP people might have attitudes, dispositions, preferences that either align well with Trump or are more enthusiastic.
When the first immigration ban came down, it was a mess, which gave agents more discretion to do more or less. That they could interpret the guidance that was poorly developed however they wanted. And what did they do? They did more: during that hectic weekend and since, they have prevented not just Muslims from the seven key countries from entering the US, but despite agreements between Trump and Trudeau and Trump and the UK, the CBP and associates have kept out Canadian and British Muslims.
How does this make sense in a principal-agent framework? That these folks have two principals (President and Congress). The first has pretty much told them via his speeches and tweets that he would not mind if these agents exceed their authority. The second, Congress, has shown no interest in investigating what went wrong. I argued with my student that Congress could matter if one could imagine that it would do oversight--hold hearings about what happened, call to testify individual officials up and down the chain of command in DHS, and maybe even move money around to punish those offices that transgressed. OK, STOP LAUGHING--it could happen. Ok, hardly likely, especially with key Congress people making it clear that there will be no oversight over the Trump admin--just ask Jason Chaffetz, head of the House Oversight Committee.
The argument with my student was whether the folks on the ground care about Congressional oversight. I think so--based on my experience hanging out with the officers in the Pentagon, but I could be wrong. Right now, it does not matter, since the GOP have no intention of overseeing anything.
The larger point is that shirking can mean agents do more or less, so in this time of less oversight, the question is really about agents and their dispositions. Which means agent selection and self-selection matter a great deal. And that probably is bad news with many agencies populated by people who might actually have some enthusiasm for Trump's agenda, such as the FBI, ATF, ICE, and other law enforcement. It may be that the foreign policy types--CIA, State, US military (sort of)--might be opposed to Trump's bad ideas, but, alas, it looks like the forces of repression may just be very enthusiastic. Not good at all.