Forty years ago Democratic Party nominee Jimmy Carter was riding to victory in November railing against government bureaucracy and demanding major reform. Unlike many promises, he turned talk into action by proposing and then signing the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
Dissatisfaction with government is even stronger today but bureaucracy is a forgotten word on the campaign trail. Hillary Clinton was forced in a debate to promise to “take a hard look” at duplicative government programs and Donald Trump has criticized bureaucrats at the departments of Veterans Affairs and Education but neither has offered specifics.
Clinton whispered to Federal employee unions she would continue the status quo by preserving collective bargaining in government and re-issuing President Barack Obama’s union-friendly labor-management rights executive order.
Trump adviser Gov. Chris Christie did tell a closed meeting of donors he recommended that Trump rewrite the civil service rules making it easier to fire employees, especially Obama political appointees “burrowing” into career positions to frustrate future Trump policies. But the normally voluble apprentice has been mostly silent.
Trump won the nomination criticizing his opponents for lacking the courage to confront the status quo, especially targeting Congress.
It has gone unnoticed but the much-maligned Paul Ryan-led House of Representatives, with four Democrats, recently passed a major bureaucracy reform bill, the Government Reform and Improvement Act sponsored by Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer.
It is not quite as comprehensive as the Carter legislation but it takes major steps forward.
House hearings demonstrated that while the Carter reforms implemented by President Ronald Reagan did temporarily tighten the personnel appraisal system measuring performance, the old pass-fail, 90 plus percent successful travesty has returned today and even worsened.
Only 9,000 Feds, a mere half of one percent of employees — compared to six times that rate in the private sector — were dismissed for poor performance, almost all in the first year probationary period.
Recognizing that reforming the whole appraisal process would require cooperation from the president, House leaders focused upon the less controversial idea of increasing the probationary period for new federal hires from one to two years, which in fact had been adopted earlier for the Department of Defense.
If government executives refused to fire poor performers except during the probation period when there were fewer red-tape hurdles, at least expand that time.
The Act would also limit endless government-wide appeals of disciplinary actions against top career officials in the Senior Executive Service, restrictions previously placed against the Veteran Affairs Department after bonuses were paid to executives who had caused the scandal there.
A 21-day limit was set for appeals which if not met would result in validation of agency poor-performance charges. And no additional appeals would be allowed that would further delay a process most management supervisors were otherwise unwilling to initiate.
A third proposal would overturn an appeals board ruling that required collective bargaining with a union before an agency could deny an employee access to personal accounts on their government computers, overruling traditional agency management rights on cybersecurity.
Agencies would also be required to prepare annual reports on the use of “official time” for union representation by paid government employees: the amount of time, the activities performed, the number of union officials involved, and the costs for their pay, benefits and space provided.
The Internal Revenue Service could not issue further rules until a new president took office to avoid repeating the earlier political bias against organizations seeking tax-exempt status.
Finally, the Office of Management and Budget would be required to provide a mechanism to block employees from viewing pornography on government computers in response to complaints from agency management that this was taking significant time from official duties.
But no good deed goes unpunished in dealing with the government bureaucracy.
The Obama White House announced it would veto the bill. It “would weaken the rights of federal employees and be impractical and administratively burdensome to implement.”
The limits on SES manager appeals were called unconstitutional and the Justice Department would even refuse to defend the rules that had been legislated previously for VA. It called the limits on unions “subjective and virtually impossible to measure.”
Skeptics might suspect it had something to do with appeasing important Democratic constituencies like the federal unions and government employees.
What a shame.
As George Washington University’s Jonathan Turley has shown, the bureaucracy has become a fourth branch of government “with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency” that “now has a larger practical impact on the lives of citizens than all the other branches combined.”
Jimmy Carter understood the importance of bureaucracy reform and rose above partisanship to deliver it. Proposing such reform today would be costless politically for Donald Trump and certainly would be more winning than attacking Gold Star parents or speakers of the House.
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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