Public Service: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Recently, Congressman Charlie Rangel went to the floor of the House of Representatives to make a spirited defense against the thirteen ethics charges laid against him. This caught my attention:

Hey, I'm 80 years old. All my life has been from the beginning public service. That's all I've ever done. Been in the Army, been a state legislator, been a federal prosecutor, 40 years here. ...

Public service. An interesting choice of words. Merriam-Webster defines public service as being employed by the government. But like so much of our language today, the meaning has evolved. Under the Obamas, public service is now a holy calling, light-years beyond what used to be known as civil service.

Public service now encompasses working for non-profit corporations, the "helping" professions, and work which advances the latest pet causes of the Left. Included are community organizers, officeholders, and any job whose description includes the term "raising awareness" or has the word "advocate" in its title.

Both Obamas have preached the superiority of public service over self-employment or success in the private sector. During the 2008 campaign, at a women's forum, Michelle Obama
instructed her audience:

We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we're asking young people to do[.] ... Don't go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we're encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond. [Emphasis added.]

President Obama added qualifiers on what makes a job public service-worthy. In a commencement speech at Arizona State University in 2009, the president lectured the graduates:

With a degree from this university, you have everything you need to get started. Did you study business? Why not help our struggling non-profits find better, more effective ways to serve folks in need. Nursing? Understaffed clinics and hospitals across this country are desperate for your help. Education? Teach in a high-need school; give a chance to kids we can't afford to give up on - prepare them to compete for any job anywhere in the world. Engineering? Help us lead a green revolution, developing new sources of clean energy that will power our economy and preserve our planet.

Therefore, working in business can be public service if one is helping "struggling non-profits," and engineering is public service when it is part of a "green revolution." At least we know that the Obamas are admonishing us from experience. After all, as Michelle Obama told us, they "left corporate America." But did Michelle's salary respond?

It certainly did. In 1991, Michelle Obama
left the world of corporate law to serve the public in Chicago Mayor Daley's office. She then served the public at the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and by founding the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a non-profit organization. In 1996, Mrs. Obama continued her public service at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Hospitals. By 2005, Mrs. Obama's salary had "responded" to her public service work to the tune of $317,000.

Nice work if you can get it.

Today's public employee is definitely not your dad's civil servant. We've all heard the saying that "civil service may not pay well, but the job security and benefits are great." Civil servants were frequently the targets of jokes, such as this
classic "I Love Lucy" scene:

Civil Servant: This office closes promptly at five o'clock.
Ethel: Well, it wouldn't hurt you to stay open a few extra minutes, would it?
Civil Servant: When the five o'clock whistle blows, so do I.
Ethel: I'm a taxpaying citizen. I'll report you to Washington, and then you see how long you hold this job!
Civil Servant: This is a civil service job. If you want to get me fired, you'll have to wait till I die.

It looks like the civil servants are getting the last laugh, however. While today's public service job continues to have all the security of the 1950s, the low pay is a thing of the past:

Overall, federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008 for occupations that exist both in government and the private sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average pay for the same mix of jobs in the private sector was $60,046 in 2008, the most recent data available.

These salary figures do not include the value of health, pension and other benefits, which averaged $40,785 per federal employee in 2008 vs. $9,882 per private worker, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

So now we have the situation where public servants earn a bigger salary than their private-sector counterparts and receive over four times the amount of benefit compensation. As mind-boggling as these statistics are, what really takes the cake is the attitude of the Obamas and the Democrats: not only the demand that taxpayers pay those hefty salaries, but also the conceit that we owe these servants our gratitude and admiration for all the sacrifices made for us, the little people, the public. 

For example, the expression "I devoted my life to public service" is frequently used by politicians hoping to score points with the electorate. Devoting one's life to something implies the sacrifice of one's self-interest to a higher cause.Sacrifice? The city manager of tiny Bell, California was
earning $800,000 per year. Chris Dodd is retiring from the Senate after receiving sweetheart mortgage deals and a bargain in Irish real estate. Then there's Franklin Raines and Jamie Gorelick, two devoted public servants who presided over the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and received tens of millions in compensation.

Back to Charlie Rangel, whose "life has been from the beginning public service." Excluding the Army and his work as a federal prosecutor (which I am sure we would all agree is true public service), he has spent over forty years in elective office. How has he served the public these past forty years? Thanks to Rangel's service in Congress on the House Ways and Means Committee, the public is drowning in taxes and regulations, requirements so onerous and incomprehensible that Chairman Rangel once defended himself against ethics charges by claiming he
couldn't understand the rules.

I've visited many congressional websites. On each one is a page devoted to constituent services. On my congressman's page, under the listing of "How Can I Help?", is subheadings for assistance with federal agencies, casework needs, Medicare claims and appeals, veterans benefits, and many others. It's ironic, isn't it? Government passes mountains of legislation, inserting itself into every corner of our lives, and then hires armies of bureaucrats at ever-growing compensation levels to enforce it all. Then, as the rest of us about to be swept away in the tidal wave of regulations and taxes, our Public Servants reach out a hand and ask, "How Can I Help?" Now that's service.

Carol Peracchio is a registered nurse.