A Great Reform from the VA Scandal

There is a wonderful opportunity for a great reform that conservatives would do well to push.

Government, especially the federal government, doesn’t work.  We all know that.  Why?  The left uses government as its own private empire, rewarding its troops and punishing its enemies.  Operations in the private market work efficiently or die.  This calculation is utterly missing in the world of government bureaucrats and their political allies.  

Civil servants actually profit from sloth, incompetence, corruption, and deceit.  The pat answers for problems like the VA scandal have sounded like this: “Give us more money.  Give us the tools to do the job right, and we will.  We have asked Congress for the resources to do the job right, and Congress has refused.”  

Then, when panicked politicians thoughtlessly throw more tax dollars at the “problem,” these selfsame civil servants have more staff to manage, and so qualify for higher positions in the Civil Service, bigger offices, more junkets, etc.   The one thing that never happens is that bad government employees lose their jobs – except, of course, when a high-profile political appointee resigns.

The Civil Service System is the culprit.  It was created more than a century ago to prevent an incoming administration from firing government employees and replacing those positions with party operatives who helped win the presidential election.  However noble the original intention of this change may have been, the practical effect was that Civil Service employees became almost impossible to fire.

The solution to “underfunded” government operations became to hire more people in hopes that some of the new workers would actually work.  These new employees, after their probationary period, learned the ropes and understood that being too efficient would actually rile their coworkers.  The inherent inefficiency of government has been dramatically multiplied by this immunity to termination or demotion because of the Civil Service System and the cost of government increased significantly.

Beyond that, the high-level officers in charge of federal departments have acquired a degree of immunity to government failure as well, because everyone who understands the system knows that they have little power to really make Civil Service employees follow orders and policies establishment by the administration. 

There is a very simple answer: permit the president to fire any federal employee in the Executive Branch for any reason, with no right of appeal.  At once, the president would become truly accountable for failures in government, and the president would also be accountable for buildings full of bureaucrats who do nothing useful.  Crucially, this reform would retain the current system for hiring and promoting government employees.  The president would not be able to hire the merit system employees, and so he would have no power to reward his party faithful with government jobs, as had been the case before the Civil Service System.

Would a Democrat president fire wholesale all Republicans in the merit system?  No: that president would not be able to hire a single Democrat to take their place.  New employees would still have to pass Civil Service exams, meet minimum qualifications, and so on, and these new employees might well largely be Republicans.  Beyond that, firing people is political poison.  The spoils system was based upon rewarding friends, not punishing people who are in the other party.  The fired worker has friends, family, even Democrat friends at work who would be angered by this injustice.

Moreover, any president or cabinet secretary who fired competent people would create situations in which his department would do the sorts of things we see in the VA scandal today, but with this addendum: the president would own this scandal completely, because he would have exercised his power to correct abuses but used that power badly.

The effect on the federal government generally could be transformative.  Though conservatives rightly view those getting fat at the trough as a huge problem in government, we often forget that the fattest pigs at this trough are not special interests in the private sector or nutty groups of environmentalists or even classroom teachers, but the faceless, gray gnomes hiding in air-conditioned offices, getting regular promotions, earning annual bonuses for “good work,” and making no waves until something like this VA scandal draws a spotlight on them.  This tragedy in the VA Administration could be the spark of a truly great reform.