In a case where an administration is on the way out, or strongly predicts that it is on the way out, has there been any observed occurrences of that administration sabotaging its civil service for the purpose of undermining the incoming government? Specifically, impeding the rival government's ability to govern due to the time and money spent undoing its damage and thus besmirching the new administration in the eyes of the electorate -- presumably the rhetoric of "it was the other guys' fault" will only go so far -- with the intent to curry favour for themselves in subsequent elections.

For example, this could be:

  • Getting rid of good people, or installing bad (incompetent/partisan/etc.) ones; especially where labour laws make it expensive to hire/fire people.
  • Reducing efficiency within or between departments with, e.g., unnecessary bureaucracy.
  • Slashing key budgets, or instigating "white elephant" projects (i.e., where the sunk cost would be embarrassing to explain to the tax payer, if it were cancelled).

Obviously the damage done would have to be subtle enough such that it didn't look deliberate (which may make the "observation" part of my question difficult to satisfy) and, of course, to not outlast the rival's term, while frustrating enough to significantly impair them with no hope of turning it around into an opportunity.

If it has been observed, was it successful: Did they "get away with it" and did it have the desired result?

  • The answer is certainly yes, and that sometimes it works. I would imagine that a proper answer would spell out examples.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 21, 2022 at 22:50
  • Is this US-specific? It's going to vary a lot between nations based on political system, e.g. the UK has a constitutional principle that one parliament can't bind its successors, but that's unusual internationally.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 22, 2022 at 14:38
  • The question was meant generally, rather than being US-specific. If there are laws/principles that actively prevent this strategy in certain jurisdictions, then I think enumerating those would also be a good answer. (However, yes, without limit does make this question perhaps too broad.) Mar 22, 2022 at 14:43
  • Less administratively, but the outgoing Clinton administration did leave the White House in an unkempt state that required cleaning.
    – David S
    Mar 22, 2022 at 21:31

1 Answer 1


History has at least one.

The foundational SCOTUS case Marbury v. Madison arose from a lame-duck Congress basically engaging in openly packing the courts at the last possible moment in order to undermine an incoming President Thomas Jefferson. Marbury's commission was still on the President's desk when Jefferson took office, and Jefferson ordered it to be ignored, prompting Marbury to bring suit.

Because nearly anything that can be done by lame-duck officials, can be undone by the incoming electeds, there's only so much damage that can be done. Stuffing the ranks of life-appointed positions or positions with hiring/firing protections (such as the U.S. Civil Service) is the usual means to ensure that one's policy objectives outlive one's term.

The outgoing Trump administration may have attempted something like a staffing cut-down (too early to tell, yet), with Executive Order 13597 which has the effect of eliminating many protections of government employees from being arbitrarily fired - but this was issued in October of 2020, so Trump wasn't yet an official lame-duck, and the net-effect may be more damaging to their own hirees than they calculated before doing this.

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