How to Reform the Civil Service

Thomas Lifson has correctly observed that reforming the Civil Service System ought to be a high priority for President-Elect Trump and the new Republican Congress.

We need to understand why the Civil Service System first created as a reform in how the federal government operated.  "To the victors go the spoils" was the way Andrew Jackson put it almost 200 years ago.  Jackson expressed the view that the president has the right – legal and moral – to throw out government employees and replace them with cronies.

The size of the federal government was proportionately much smaller then than today, and those political allies rewarded with jobs to deliver the mail or to collect tariffs seemed innocuous enough, at least until President Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled federal office seeker in 1881.  The Pendleton Act of 1883 created a system in which those who sought federal jobs, except for a layer of high-level executives, had to pass an objective hiring system. 

The second part of Civil Service System reforms was to create protections that made it difficult – really, almost impossible – for any Civil Service System employee ever to lose his job.  This is the heart of the problem.  Presidents can fill the upper echelon of federal agencies with whomever they want (except for the few who require Senate confirmation), and presidents can fire these people easily enough as well.  But no one – not even these high-level political appointees – can fire anyone.

Ironically, the problems with the spoils system had nothing to do with firing federal employees, but only with hiring federal employees.  The right reform is simple enough: allow the president to fire any federal employee in the Executive Branch at will, but keep the system in place only for hiring through the Civil Service System. 

A president would then have the power to fire lazy, dishonest, rude, or unnecessary federal employees, but he could have no power to fill those positions he caused by firing bad federal employees with his supporters or partisans.  So if a federal employee took the Fifth Amendment in an investigation of federal malfeasance, something that Thomas Lifson correctly noted was intolerable, the next day, that employee could be told, "You can either refuse to answer questions or keep your federal job, but not both."

If President Trump brought in business experts to analyze federal operations and detect waste and inefficiency, then President Trump could do what he did so often in his reality television show and fire those who are unnecessary. 

Anyone familiar with the internal operations of government knows that 30% is a conservative figure for the number of federal employees who do nothing.  Allowing a tough, business-oriented president like Trump to dramatically reduce the size of the federal government would also reduce the cost of government – and all this could be done expeditiously. 

Federal employees would instantly become not only more efficient, but more polite and responsive to the public (i.e., the folks who pay their salaries).  More than that, coworkers in offices would strongly encourage politeness and civility, because the more complaints a particular office caused, the more likely that office would be to get a bad reputation, and people in that office would be fired.

What about the danger of a president forcing people to support him or lose their jobs?  Civil servants ought to be completely apolitical anyway and ought not to contribute to any political campaign or to work for any candidate.  If that was the case in practice, then the president could not know who did not support him and, because all hiring was objective and removed from the president's power, he could not hire any friends.

If the president could not reward anyone by firing a federal employee but could only punish the federal employee by firing him, he would have every incentive to be fair in firing federal employees.  Politicians know that punishing voters loses votes not only because that voter, who may have supported the president, would be unhappy, but because every fired employee has family and friends and neighbors and congregants at his church, and firing an employee causes ill will among all those close to the fired employee.

This is a reform is easy to understand and would make sense to the American voter.  Best of all, it would work.  Civility, efficiency, and integrity in the administration of the federal government would improve almost at once.

Thomas Lifson has correctly observed that reforming the Civil Service System ought to be a high priority for President-Elect Trump and the new Republican Congress.

We need to understand why the Civil Service System first created as a reform in how the federal government operated.  "To the victors go the spoils" was the way Andrew Jackson put it almost 200 years ago.  Jackson expressed the view that the president has the right – legal and moral – to throw out government employees and replace them with cronies.

The size of the federal government was proportionately much smaller then than today, and those political allies rewarded with jobs to deliver the mail or to collect tariffs seemed innocuous enough, at least until President Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled federal office seeker in 1881.  The Pendleton Act of 1883 created a system in which those who sought federal jobs, except for a layer of high-level executives, had to pass an objective hiring system. 

The second part of Civil Service System reforms was to create protections that made it difficult – really, almost impossible – for any Civil Service System employee ever to lose his job.  This is the heart of the problem.  Presidents can fill the upper echelon of federal agencies with whomever they want (except for the few who require Senate confirmation), and presidents can fire these people easily enough as well.  But no one – not even these high-level political appointees – can fire anyone.

Ironically, the problems with the spoils system had nothing to do with firing federal employees, but only with hiring federal employees.  The right reform is simple enough: allow the president to fire any federal employee in the Executive Branch at will, but keep the system in place only for hiring through the Civil Service System. 

A president would then have the power to fire lazy, dishonest, rude, or unnecessary federal employees, but he could have no power to fill those positions he caused by firing bad federal employees with his supporters or partisans.  So if a federal employee took the Fifth Amendment in an investigation of federal malfeasance, something that Thomas Lifson correctly noted was intolerable, the next day, that employee could be told, "You can either refuse to answer questions or keep your federal job, but not both."

If President Trump brought in business experts to analyze federal operations and detect waste and inefficiency, then President Trump could do what he did so often in his reality television show and fire those who are unnecessary. 

Anyone familiar with the internal operations of government knows that 30% is a conservative figure for the number of federal employees who do nothing.  Allowing a tough, business-oriented president like Trump to dramatically reduce the size of the federal government would also reduce the cost of government – and all this could be done expeditiously. 

Federal employees would instantly become not only more efficient, but more polite and responsive to the public (i.e., the folks who pay their salaries).  More than that, coworkers in offices would strongly encourage politeness and civility, because the more complaints a particular office caused, the more likely that office would be to get a bad reputation, and people in that office would be fired.

What about the danger of a president forcing people to support him or lose their jobs?  Civil servants ought to be completely apolitical anyway and ought not to contribute to any political campaign or to work for any candidate.  If that was the case in practice, then the president could not know who did not support him and, because all hiring was objective and removed from the president's power, he could not hire any friends.

If the president could not reward anyone by firing a federal employee but could only punish the federal employee by firing him, he would have every incentive to be fair in firing federal employees.  Politicians know that punishing voters loses votes not only because that voter, who may have supported the president, would be unhappy, but because every fired employee has family and friends and neighbors and congregants at his church, and firing an employee causes ill will among all those close to the fired employee.

This is a reform is easy to understand and would make sense to the American voter.  Best of all, it would work.  Civility, efficiency, and integrity in the administration of the federal government would improve almost at once.