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December 18, 2013 4:44 AM The High Cost of Mistreating the Federal Civil Service

By Mark Kleiman

Sometimes the forced brevity of Twitter has very good results. Harold Pollack (@haroldpollack, for those of you keeping score at home) put up a Tweet a few days ago that expresses an important and under-appreciated truth in 140 characters:

Next time federal gov fails to execute something important w/technical proficiency, I hope we remember nickel+diming employee benefits+pay.

The federal civil service is, by and large, both honest and competent. That makes a bigger difference to the quality of life in this country than anyone who hasn’t been close to the process could possibly grasp. (Yes, there’s always inefficiency and bad decision-making that goes with bureaucracy, whether public or private. But when the people involved are dumb or crooked or just seriously bored, really, really terrible things happen. Ask anyone who has to do business with, for example, Louisiana state government or the city government of Providence.)

But that honesty and competence are largely a legacy of the era that started with the New Deal and ended with Watergate. Pay, benefits, and working conditions at the top of the civil service simply haven’t kept pace with private-sector pay, or with the cost of living in lobbyist-dominated Washington, D.C. A GS-15, Step 10 - someone with at least 20 years of service and substantial responsiblity - makes less than a first-year associate, fresh out of law school, at a top law firm, or a fresh MBA at a top consulting firm. (Further up the chain, any law or economics professor who would be seriously considered for a judgeship or cabinet post would have to take a substantial pay cut to accept it.)

Worse, LBJ was perhaps the last President who understood, deep in his bones, that one of the President’s key jobs is to be the leader of the career civil servants, and that when the political leadership reaches treats the career folks as partners rather than peasants great things can happen. Starting with Nixon (with GHWB as a partial exception) we’ve had Presidents who distrusted - sometimes actively hated - the people who actually do the work, and were happy to go along with faux-populist efforts to make their lives worse, in ways great and small. Pay has been cut in real-dollar terms; the once-generous federal pension system has been dismantled; offices have gotten smaller; and travel has been made as difficult and uncomfortable as possible. The “muffingate” rules about food and drink at meetings and conferences just added insult to injury.

The latest budget deal once again sticks it to federal workers: another pay freeze, plus increased pension contributions. And as far as I can tell, neither the President nor anyone around him has even said “I’m sorry about this” to the people getting the shaft.

Not only does this mean decreasing technical competence, as Harold notes. It also means that the banks, the pharmaceutical companies, the energy companies, the telecos, and all the polluting industries can easily run rings around the folks trying to regulate them.

Of course I can understand why the Tea Party crowd and the plutocrats hate civil servants. But the failure of Democratic Presidents and legislators to stand up for them is almost inexplicable except in terms of political cowardice. (Part of the problem is that Congress doesn’t want either to raise its own pay or to let civil servants earn more than Solons.) And unfortunately, too many progressives outside of government, especially those struggling in ill-paid journalistic or academic or social-serivce venues, can’t find any sympathy with bureaucrats who are paid better than they are. But the cost of all this in terms of the capacity of the federal government to make progressive policy work is enormous. You’d hope that healthcare.gov might serve as an object lesson, but so far I don’t see much evidence that anyone except Harold is drawing the right conclusion.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.

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