The Civil Service Laws

Republicans often deride the Civil Service Laws as creating a giant union of inefficient government employees, and in a very small way, they are right. It is in fact hard, though not impossible, to fire protected government workers, and that can lead to instances of startling incompetence. But that factor is partly offset because managers, knowing they will later find it difficult to fire bad workers, will place more emphasis on pre-hiring screening. In any case, Republicans generally cite such obstacles to hiring and firing as reasons to, in the interest of “flexibility,” weaken or remove the Civil Service rules.

However, the Civil Service statutes serve another, and in my opinion, even more important purpose: ensuring that hiring and promotion decisions are made on the basis of competence rather than political patronage. So when I see Republicans weakening the Civil Service laws, I often suspect that some of the motivation is to facilitate patronage hires of political favorites.

Henry Waxman explained the issue well, in a May 2003 letter to Tom Davis (R-VA), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform. At the time, the Dept. of Defense was seeking (I believe successfully) to get exemptions from the Civil Service statutes similar to those that the Homeland Security Department’s:

Until the Civil Service Act of 1883, federal jobs were often awarded through the spoils system. Civil service jobs went to supporters of elected officials and loyal party members, which often led to incompetence and corruption.

We’ve come a long way since 1883. But we’re about to embark on a path that will reverse many of the legislative accomplishments of the past century. Today, we begin the process of stripping away the fundamental rights of one-third of federal civilian employees. And in doing so, we’ll be opening the door for the rest of the federal workforce to have their rights taken away as well. That’s wrong. As yesterday’s hearing demonstrated, members on both sides of the aisle agree that the Defense Department needs certain flexibilities to allow it operate more effectively and more efficiently. But the bill we’re considering today goes well beyond those flexibilities. The Defense Department seeks blanket waivers from large parts of the civil service laws.

Why do they need such broad waivers? No one seems to know. At two hearings in this Committee and one hearing in the Armed Services Committee, members have asked DoD to justify its desire to be exempt from large portions of the civil service laws. … Mr. Wolfowitz explained that it would be more efficient to bargain at the national level, instead of the local level. … But when we asked Mr. Wolfowitz why the Department needed to be exempt from all collective bargaining responsibilities, he had no answer. He simply said that DoD should get this authority because the Department of Homeland Security got the same authority.

This reminds me of how kids behave. One child wants something just because his brother or sister got it, not because he needs it. Giving into that kind of logic is no way to be a parent, and it’s certainly no way to be a legislator.

So what’s the real Republican motive behind the attacks on the Civil Service Laws? Flexibility or Patronage? Until yesterday, I always thought mostly the former but a fair bit of the latter. As the hiring of the loony, lying, partisan, and incompetent (but virulently anti-Clinton) L. Jean Lewis clearly demonstrates, I had the weights exactly wrong. (Story here; discussion and links here and here).