By William Wiley, May 23, 2017
It seems as if I spend most of my waking hours in an airplane flying somewhere. Giving all the wait time, the no-computers time, and the just-plain-tired time involved in those odysseys, I have lots of time to think. Lately, I’ve been thinking about why we have civil service protections. As both Capitol Hill and the White House seem intent on modifying or doing away with some or all of those protections, I thought it might be helpful to get some of those 35,000 feet high thoughts out there, should anyone care to consider them.
Since 1912 in our great country, we’ve had laws that protect civil servants from arbitrary or just plain evil mistreatment. Prior to that date, a civil service job was purely patronage. You work for some guy to get elected, that guy will work for you to get a good government job. I’ve even seen ads in old newspapers from the late 1800s in which individuals were advertising that they would be willing to pay hard cash for a good government position. Once employed, you could be fired for any reason: politics, misconduct, or a bad haircut. It didn’t really matter.
Congress eventually decided it didn’t like this approach to government employment. Therefore, it passed the Lloyd-La Follette Act early in the last century, from that point forward guaranteeing that federal employees could be fired only for such cause as supported an efficient government. That’s where we got the rule requiring nexus between misconduct and a government function, and the right of federal employees to have bad hair (unless their haircut is somehow related to the work they perform as a government worker, of course).
The theory of our civil service embodied in the Lloyd-La Follette Act is this: our country needs a cadre of meritorious employees who work for the people, not necessarily for any political party. Therefore, federal workers need some sort of protection from mistreatment (e.g., firing) by the political appointees who are brought into government to temporarily run it during any particular administration. The trade-off for federal workers is that they can no longer get a government job just because of their political connections, their political activities are restricted by the Hatch Act, and they cannot buy jobs off of Craig’s list. Those of us who have taken the oath and become civil servants have accepted this as a fair deal.
With this theory in mind, consider a hypothetical scenario for a moment. Let’s say that you are an Evil Political Overlord (EPO) appointed by the President to run some part of a federal agency. Then, pretend that you are intent on infusing your own personal political agenda into your agency, regardless of the civil service protections and in contravention of the principle embedded in the Lloyd-La Follette Act. Which of the following groups of employees would you most want to be able to fire without having to explain yourself outside of your agency?
- Senior executives who run the place, or
- Rank and file employees who do the grunt work
Well, if you’re like most EPOs, I have to believe that you would want the unreviewable right to fire your top bosses, the senior executives who supervise everyone else and who tell them what to do. Why bother with trying to get the hundreds of janitors and the file clerks to do your evil bidding when you can simply get one of your subordinate executives to do it for you.
The Sith Emperor in Star Wars had to control only his senior executive Darth Vader to rule large parts of the Empire. Boy, oh, boy … did those guys have a tough performance appraisal program.
Now that we’ve played with our hypothetical, may I be among the first to welcome you to the bold new world of the federal civil service. Recently, eight well-meaning senators introduced a bill entitled the “Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017.” If enacted, that legislation would set aside a fundamental principle of our civil service, that federal employees who are fired have a basic right to have someone outside of their employing agency review the reasons for that firing, and determine if the employee has been treated fairly. For the last 40 years, that outside review has been conducted by the independent US Merit Systems Protection Board. Here at FELTG, we are among the first to criticize MSPB when we think they have missed something. At the same time, we are Number One in defending the concept of Board overview of removals and other serious discipline as a vital component of a protected core federal workforce. We think that MSPB is trying to do what Senator Robert La Follette wanted back in 1912 when he drafted legislation to de-politicize the federal civil service.
Ah, I can just hear all you smarty-pants practitioners out there, snickering among yourselves that Old Bill is once again crying wolf, stirring up concerns where concern is not warranted. This bill applies ONLY to Title 38 employees and ONLY to SES-level individuals at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since that is a miniscule part of the two hundred million-plus federal workforce, why sound the alarm now? Congress would never take away the rights of other civil servants to challenge their dismissals outside of their employing agency.
Well, my friends, think of it this way. If you’re the Secretary of – say – Defense (or Homeland Security or Whatever), and you’re playing golf with your buddy who happens to be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, how are you going to take it when he regales you with stories of how easy it is for him to fire executives while you’re over at DoD suffering through layers of MSPB appeals/discovery/hearings just to get rid of one of those little devils? Are you going to say, “Gee, Dave, I’m so happy for you. Clearly, it’s more important for you to have greater control of your executive service than it is for me. I couldn’t possibly go to my oversight committee and ask for a similar arrangement. Why, I almost look forward to the administrative hurdles awaiting me when I need to fire somebody.”
And if you are the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, how long will it take you to realize that if it’s good enough for your senior executives, why wouldn’t it be good enough for your other employees? Heck, just think of all the money you can save if you don’t have to subscribe to cyberFEDS© any more.
Here at FELTG, we are GS-zeros. We have no clout and we make no decisions for the government. If the Big Guys who do make big decisions decide that the civil service has had a good run and we should move on to agency-limited review rights, so be it. Maybe that’s a better way to run America than we have had the past hundred years or so. We just hope that the decision-makers understand fully the path they are opening up, and the slipperiness of taking away the external appeal rights of even a small group of career federal employees. If this legislation becomes law, the endtime for our civil service will be a step closer than it is today. To quote Lord Vader, “I sense something; a presence I have not felt since …” Perhaps he was sensing the end. Wiley@FELTG.com