Congratulations to Jeb Bush for promising as president to take on the Washington bureaucracy. But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
He has credibility. As Florida governor, Bush cut the state bureaucracy by 11 percent over his eight years. If he becomes president, he now proposes to freeze federal employment and then reduce it by 10 percent over the four year presidential term through attrition.
Bush qualifies this with a “three-out, one in” proviso allowing one new employee for every three slots cut.
This sounds good in today’s rapid news cycle, but the details reveal important qualifications. He relies primarily on retirements to meet his goal. What happens if they are not sufficient?
Attrition alone also allows the better employees to leave, creating imbalances.
Yes, most of the reduction should be by attrition but some must be fired to target program functions that need to be cut or eliminated. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency when he reduced non-defense civilian employment by 100,000, 90 percent of separations were by attrition but the other ten percent were aimed at bad programs to show he was serious about the whole effort.
Bush did say that program reform is critical and promised tax, regulatory and entitlement reforms — but will only detail them sometime in the future. He did specifically propose a line item veto, a balanced budget amendment, procurement reform, and baseline budgeting — all of which would be positive but have been languishing for years.
His proposal not to pay Congressmen who do not vote is simply silly and impossible to become law. And his plan to limit lobbying sound as good as they did from Barack Obama until someone reminds folks of the Constitutional right to petition the government.
The heart of his proposal is to reform the civil service, which he correctly recognizes is dysfunctional. But he misrepresents the source of the problem, saying that much of the today’s bureaucracy “is a relic from the 1970s and the Carter administration,” which “didn’t have the taxpayers’ interest foremost in mind.”
Actually, Jimmy Carter’s one real accomplishment as president was the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 which was implemented by the Ronald Reagan administration in 1981, and actually rationalized the performance appraisal system and introduced pay-for-performance for senior executives and managers.
Unfortunately it was President George H.W. Bush who presided over the elimination of merit pay for managers and the downgrading of performance management. In the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush attempted to reintroduce performance management at the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security but these were stalled by the unions and their friends in Congress and were finally abandoned.
Gov. Bush promises to do better. He recognizes the feds are paid more than the private sector, have much richer benefits, and the bad ones are rarely disciplined or removed.
He proposes “no more doling out raises across the board,” to reintroduce merit pay and financial rewards for good performance, and to remove nonproductive employees in “weeks rather than years.”
What is missing but essential is a focus on contractors who make up the great majority of those who do national government work but are not formal employees. As the public has lost confidence in bureaucratic expertise, it has proved impossible to increase the size even under Democratic presidents and Congresses.
As political scientist John J. Dilulio, Jr. shows in his book "Bring Back the Bureaucrats," to run the present government even marginally well it would be necessary to add a million or more bureaucrats.
The federal government has increased its programs exponentially on the domestic side since Reagan but it has roughly the same number of employees. How can that be?
The answer is private or lower-level government contractors do the work, about 8 to 1 for every national government employee.
In Florida, Bush did cut some 13,000 state jobs but mostly converted them into government contractors and increased the total overall. He cut taxes by $20 billion but his budget authority increased from $49 to $71 billion, an incredible two-thirds growth. Debt increased from $15 to $23 billion and the debt service from $928 million to $1.7 billion per year.
State government actually increased dramatically during the Bush years.
It is refreshing to hear government management reform given such emphasis. It has not been front and center in a presidential election since President Jimmy Carter. But Carter used it as an alternative to reducing governmental functions. Hopefully Gov. Bush will not.
As an excellent new study by the CATO Institute’s Chris Edwards, "Why the Government Fails," documents, the real problem is over-centralization and the only real solution is to cut programs and send functions back to state, local and private institutions.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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