Civil Service Reform—Or Is That Destruction?

January 12, 2017; Washington Post

Chants of “Drain the Swamp” rang out as President-elect Trump campaigned on his way to victory. The populist energy that fueled his supporters seemed aimed at an elite, wealthy aristocracy who served their own interests and not those of working people. As the new Congress began its work and the presidential transition took shape, it became apparent the target was not our government’s leadership but its rank-and-file workforce. Appointed leadership positions in the new government continue to be filled by the wealthy; the early legislative action designed to reform government has targeted the civil service workers who do much of the day-to-day work of government.

Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) recently introduced a bill to change the very nature of civil service employment. It would severely limit due process requirements and significantly alter the employee relationship of newly hired federal staff. He describes his bill as providing the president with the power to “drain the swamp.” According to the Washington Post, the bill “would eviscerate civil service protections for all new federal employees.… [Rokita’s]…deceptively named ‘Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act’ says staffers hired one year after enactment or later ‘shall be hired on an at-will basis.’”

No longer would federal employees have due process protections to buffer them from political influence. Supervisors would be able to fire or suspend an employee “without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.”

For Rokita, who previously worked for the Indiana state government, this change would bring government employment in line with private industry. He explained how his prior experience at the state level shaped his perspective:

The current environment hides too much behind this politicization fear. […] I was able to weed out the bad apples very quickly to make sure the good ones could thrive. That’s what I’m trying to do here at the federal level…so it’s fair for the good federal workers, of which there are obviously many.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, sees the bill as a continuing part of an effort to undermine the strength of the federal government. He described it as a “shortsighted, blatant attempt to undermine a merit-based workforce that would…usher in a return to the spoils system and mean the end of a professional, non-partisan federal workforce dedicated to serving everyone, not just political allies.”

Rokita’s bill is part of a flurry of legislative activity targeted at the government’s large, career rank-and-file and not at the government’s leadership cadre. In one of its first acts, Congress reinstituted the Holman Rule, which allows individual members of Congress to target specific government employees by having their salaries cut, potentially to as low as $1 a year.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that oversees the workforce, is pursuing measures to fire feds faster, freeze federal hiring, decrease federal contributions to federal retirement and disqualify federal employees and contractors who are “seriously delinquent” on their federal taxes.

Overall reductions in the federal workforce are part of other proposals, as are attempts to dictate how specific employees accused of mismanagement will be disciplined.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told the Post that “instead of encouraging front-line workers to report mismanagement or wasteful spending, this bill would create an environment where employees are fearful of doing or saying anything that could get them fired.”

If this bill had been in place two years ago, we never would have heard about the Phoenix VA wait list manipulations because no one would have dared come forward to blow the whistle on the supervisors who concocted the scheme. […]

This bill is called the Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act, but it actually would do neither. In fact, a better title would be the Promote Fear and Political Allegiance Act, since it would give political appointees and their subordinates unchecked authority to target workers and politicize the civil service.

Any system with more than a million people will have some who do not do their jobs well. The protections that were in part designed to keep political influence away from the day-to-day work of our government may seem cumbersome and time-consuming. In the most egregious situations, the current situation may seem embarrassingly slow and too protective of ineffective workers. But the proposed cures may do more harm than good. They run the risk of forcing out competent and experienced staff and replacing them with those who are politically favored.—Martin Levine