Is the Federal Bureaucracy America’s Nobility?

In last month’s impeachment hearings, Stanford University law professor Pamela Karlan testified that the U.S. Constitution does not allow titles of nobility. Professor Karlan intended a witticism about Barron Trump, the president’s 13-year-old son, but she managed to raise an issue often overlooked: the possibility that America’s vast federal bureaucracy offers the equivalent to titles of nobility.

Current FBI Director Christopher Wray, a lawyer who never served in the FBI, referred to the Department of Justice’s special counsel as “Director Mueller,” even though Mueller had left that post way back in 2013. In Wray’s mind, “Director” is some kind of permanent title, not a job description. True to form, Pamela Karlan was a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice. It might be kept in mind that the DOJ and FBI are only agencies, not actual branches of American government. 

Incoming American presidents routinely install their own ambassadors, and President Trump replaced Marie Yovanovitch in Ukraine. At the time of her testimony last year, she was still called “Ambassador” Yovanovitch, as though this was some kind of title retained when the holder is no longer a diplomat. Yovanovitch was teaching at Georgetown University but according to news reports was still employed by the State Department. So the “foreign service” Voyanovich joined in 1986 shapes up as a kind of permanent fiefdom, akin to feudal arrangements with all those Dukes and Earls, a wealthy but generally useless bunch.

A similar nobility dynamic is apparent in Congress. Frank Murkowski was a U.S. Senator from 1981 until 2002, when he ran for governor of Alaska. At that time, Murkowski resigned his Senate seat and appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski in his place. This raised accusations of nepotism, but it also betrays the tendency to regard a Senate seat as a hereditary item. True to form the official bio of Lisa Murkowski, still in the Senate, makes no mention of the hand-me-down deal. 

Meanwhile, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Karlan is right that the Constitution forbids presidents to assign titles of nobility. The Framers might have had a problem with the titled power brokers of the administrative state. They enjoy an array of superior benefits funded by the people, who have no direct choice in their selection. For example, “Director Mueller” headed the FBI from 2001 to 2013 (who, like Wray, never served in the bureau), never once had had to face the voters, and they still call him “Director.”

The Framers might also looked askance at the hereditary practices of Congress. By the count of Wikipedia, nearly 50 women in the House and Senate widows took over from deceased husbands.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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