The (Invisible) Empire Strikes Back

You hear a lot about federal employees who comprise the so-called “Deep State” these days.  They apparently don’t like the new President or his policies, and they’re concerned about what he’s going to do to their jobs.

top-secretSo, at least some of those federal employees apparently are doing what any honest, “merit-hired,” politically neutral “civil servants” would do — they’re figuring out ways to undercut the new Administration’s agenda, “slow walk” proposals, and otherwise thwart policy changes.  Politico calls it “the revenge of the bureaucrats,” and notes that the principal weapons of the “Deep State” are carefully aimed leaks, efforts to have the inspector generals of agencies investigate political appointees, and using “the tools of bureaucracy to slow or sandbag policy proposals.”  Is it any coincidence that, since the new Administration took office, leaks seem to have come fast and furious?

This is an interesting issue, because there’s a fine line between the right of federal bureaucrats to exercise their First Amendment rights and the need to have workers who will blow the whistle on misconduct, on the one hand, and the actions of politicized employees who simply don’t agree with the direction the new Administration is taking and want to try to use their special positions to stop it, on the other.  It may be a fine line, but it should be a clear line, with the former being acceptable but the latter not.  Federal employees aren’t elected, and their views of what is the best course aren’t entitled to more weight than, say, the people who voted and elected the new Administration in the first place.  Career bureaucrats shouldn’t be permitted to use passive-aggressive methods to block policy changes just because they disagree with them.

The “Deep State” employees might think they’re clever in playing a backroom game of leaks and bureaucratic maneuvers, but it’s a dangerous game for them, too — if people get the sense that the federal workforce is hopelessly politicized, it’s going to continue the long decline in public trust in government, and ultimately people who might otherwise protect the federal employees from cuts won’t do so.  The whole notion of civil service is that the federal workforce shouldn’t be political, and instead should be comprised of knowledgeable, experienced career employees ready to implement the policies of whichever Administration may take office.  If the workers themselves demonstrate that they are politicized, what’s the point of the civil service in the first place?

Porn On The Federal Payroll

A television station in Washington, D.C. sent a Freedom of Information Act request to 12 federal agencies.  The FOIA request, directed to the inspector generals of the 12 agencies, sought records of cases of “egregious on-the-job pornography” viewing by federal employees at the 12 agencies.

lawmaker-calls-to-block-federal-employees-porn-accessIn response, the inspector generals produced records showing that almost 100 federal employees at the 12 agencies were caught, or admitted to, watching vast amounts of porn while at work.  One employee, at the Environmental Protection Agency offices in Washington, D.C., said he had spent up to six hours a day watching porn for “several years.”  A patent and trademark employee at the Department of Commerce was found to have made 1,800 connections to pornographic websites and told investigators, by way of explanation:  “When I am working hard, I go to these images to take a mental break.”  A worker at the Federal Railroad Administration was found to have searched for porn for 252 hours in one year.  And some of the cases addressed in the inspector general records were criminal in nature, because they involved viewing child pornography.

Watching porn on the job apparently falls within the category of “computer misuse,” which is subject to different penalties at different federal agencies, with sanctions ranging from a written reprimand to suspensions and termination.  As one deputy assistant inspector general put it, the computer systems, and the employees, are supposed to be performing government work while on the job, and checking out porn instead constitutes some of the “waste, fraud, and abuse” we taxpayers often hear politicians talk about.  Notably, the TV station report provides no information on whether disciplinary action was taken against the supervisors of the employee who says he spent six hours a day watching porn on his work computer for several years without being detected, or whether the EPA concluded that his job clearly wasn’t necessary and could be eliminated.

About 100 employees out of the vast payrolls of the 12 federal agencies obviously isn’t a huge percentage; you’re going to find a few “bad apples” in just about any workplace.  But the TV station FOIA request was targeted specifically at “egregious” porn viewing, and the fact that federal employees can spend hours watching porn on the job watching pornography, undetected, just adds fuel to the budget-cutting and payroll-cutting fire.  President Trump’s budget plans already have federal employees worried that federal payrolls are going to be slashed.  Don’t be surprised if, in the debate about downsizing the federal government, bureaucratic porn-watching habits get trotted out as a talking point.

Our Cutting-Edge Government

On Saturday the Washington Post published a stunning news article — one of those pieces that make you shake your head in wonder and disgust.

The story, by reporter David Fahrenthold, is about how the Office of Personnel Management — the main agency charged with human resources function for federal employees — processes the retirement paperwork of those federal employees. And “paperwork” is apt, because even though it is March 2014, the process is done almost entirely by hand and almost entirely on paper. Imagine! And to make it even weirder, it all happens underground, in a remote abandoned mine in Pennsylvania that received paper forms by the truckload and is filled with filing cabinets. That’s right — filing cabinets.

Using its antiquated process, it takes 61 days for the Office of Personnel Management to complete the retirement process. By contrast it takes Texas two days.

Does any large private company still process personnel actions on paper and by hand? Do any still maintain filing cabinets of sensitive personnel documents?

No wonder these guys botched the job of designing a functioning website!

Are Federal Workers Overpaid? (II)

About a year ago I wrote a post about whether federal employees are overpaid. It’s a never-ending debate — and now the Congressional Budget Office has weighed in.

The CBO conducted a study that compared the wages, benefits, and overall compensation of federal employees and private-sector employees who shared certain comparable observable characteristics.  The study noted, of course, that certain important qualities that can have a significant impact on compensation — such as effort and motivation — can’t really be compared.  So, the study focused on objective, measurable factors, like educational levels, years of experience, occupation, geographic location, and demographic characteristics.

The study found that federal workers with just a high school level of education make considerably more than their private-sector counterparts — 36 percent higher in total compensation.  Federal employees with a bachelor’s degree also made materially more, receiving 15 percent higher total compensation.  Only when education levels reached graduate degrees and doctorates did private-sector employees earn more than federal workers, pulling in 18 percent more in total compensation.  Overall, federal workers earned 16 percent more than comparable private-sector workers.

The CBO study probably isn’t the last word on this topic — but it does provide significant ammunition for those who think government workers often are overpaid, and that we should look long and hard at the federal government payroll as a potential target for federal spending cuts.

Federal Facebook Follies

Does the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs really need to hire someone to manage a Facebook page for the Department of the Interior, to the tune of up to $115,000 a year?  That’s one of more than 1,000 federal government job openings in the Washington, D.C. area that were advertised in March.

My guess is that most Americans would say that, given our current federal budget deficit and debt issues, the Department of Interior can safely do without someone to set up and supervise a Facebook page.  The fact that the opening is even being advertised for filling suggests that the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. really aren’t serious about belt-tightening and holding down spending.  The President should instruct all federal agencies to cut their payrolls and consider carefully whether new hires and replacements really are necessary — and if there is any doubt, the new hire shouldn’t be made.

I recognize that refraining from hiring one Facebook editor isn’t going to solve our spending issues by itself, but as I often tell Kish (to her disdain) every little bit helps.  A big part of our federal budget challenge is changing the culture of spending inside the Beltway.  Telling the bureaucrats that their hiring budget has been cut and that they will be held accountable for unnecessary hires is a good first step.

Are Federal Workers Overpaid?

The debate about whether federal employees are overpaid in comparison to private sector employees is never-ending.  Attempts at comparison are criticized for involving small sample size, for not accounting for differences in education level, and on the basis of other factors.  The Weekly Standard now weighs in on this ongoing debate with an article that concludes that, in fact, federal workers are overpaid. I’m sure that the article will not be the last word on the subject.  It does, however, provide ammunition for those who think that we can safely freeze federal employee compensation without losing out on qualified workers.

I’m not sure that debating the compensation levels of federal employees versus private sector employees is really all that meaningful.  To me, the more pertinent question deals with productivity and performance.  Speaking as someone who has worked (twice) in the federal government and also in the private sector, I am convinced that private sector workers must work harder, be more productive, and maintain a higher level of performance.  If you are a salesman, you have to sell up to your quota if you want to keep your job.   If you are a mechanic who botches a few repair jobs, you will find yourself out on the street.

How many federal employees get fired for poor performance?  Not as many who should be, no doubt, because the process of firing federal workers is incredibly difficult and time-consuming.  The result is that crummy workers keep their jobs, and the government hires additional employees to do what the poor employees can’t, or won’t, do.  The lack of a meaningful threat of discharge inevitably results in a bloated workforce.  The real answer to cutting the federal payroll is not to freeze salaries, but to get rid of the absurd limitations on discharging bad employees and require federal employees to meet the same meaningful productivity and performance standards that are applied to private sector workers.

Federal Pay Freeze

President Obama has called for a two-year freeze on the salaries of some federal workers.  If the proposal is approved by Congress, it is estimated that it will save $5 billion during that two-year period.  Unless a freeze is approved, federal workers would automatically get a pay increase (!) as a result of a 1990 law.

Everett Dirksen

Republicans have said that the President is just hopping on board a proposal that Republicans made months ago, and others are criticizing the pay freeze as a drop in the bucket when compared to the budget deficit.  I don’t care who gets credit, I’m just glad to see that the President is focused on deficit reduction as a worthy goal, and I hope Congress agrees.  And as for the size of the savings, I’m hoping that the pay freeze proposal will be the first of a long series of deficit reduction initiatives that will include things like actually cutting the head count in the federal workforce, eliminating unnecessary agencies and departments, lopping off programs that we can no longer afford, eliminating ill-advised subsidies, limiting the size of congressional staffs, restricting congressional travel, and many, many others.  (I’m simply mentioning these as examples; I think there are lots of places where cutting should occur.)

When it comes to deficit reduction, I’m a big proponent of the wise words attributed to former Senator Everett Dirksen:  “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money.”  We shouldn’t throw up our hands because no one bit of belt-tightening will result in a balanced budget.  Instead, the focus should be on taking a number of spending reduction steps that will cumulatively have that ultimate desired effect.

Two Worlds, Two Sets Of Rules

The Washington Post has done some good reporting on the amount of taxes owed by Capitol Hill staffers, White House aides, and other government employees.  All told, federal employees owe $1 billion and Capitol Hill employees owe $9.3 million.  In the Obama Administration White House, 41 aides owe $831,000 — or about $20,000 per person.

I recognize that there are lots of Americans who owe taxes — but they aren’t getting paid by other taxpayers, nor do they have a hand in establishing and enforcing federal law.  The Post story linked above notes that a Republican Congressman has proposed legislation requiring that any federal employees who owe back taxes be fired unless they enter into a payment plan (and presumably comply with it).  Surprisingly, only eight Republicans have co-sponsored the bill, and no Democrats have done so.  Why not?  Is it really so unreasonable to insist that employees who get paid from the federal till meet their obligations to pay their taxes to the federal government?

This is the kind of story that drives the average American crazy.  We hear so many politicians talk about raising taxes, or expanding the number of IRS agents to increase tax collections, and then we learn that congressional staffers and other federal employees are ignoring their own obligations.  Before Washington looks to us for more money, let’s collect the $1 billion owed by the folks drawing a federal paycheck.