- - Monday, February 5, 2018

Every time there’s a threat of a government shutdown, a threat once rare but now not so rare, there’s a discussion of who is so important that he is declared “essential” and who must show up for work, anyway.

The president has the authority to classify certain employees in the executive branch who must stay on the job even if there’s no money to pay them for it.

But what does “essential” mean? Nobody seems to know. Does it mean that some workers are crucial to the safety and security of the United States — the Army, Navy, and ships at sea, for example — or does it mean merely that some grunions are crucial merely to keeping the bureaucracy fed?

The president should have some flexibility to conclude, but maybe not all by himself, that the Education Department, or the Commerce Department, are as important to the nation’s survival and well-being as Defense Department or the Department of Homeland Security.

This is a problem even without the threat of a shutdown. No one apparently knows the precise size of the federal workforce, only that it’s uuuuuge, or what everyone in it does, exactly, or what really is essential and what’s not. It’s not likely that anyone really wants to find out.

We can hope that Mick Mulvaney, the president’s choice to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Jeff Pon, the president’s nominee to head the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, will make taking a census of the swamp a priority once Mr. Pon is confirmed in his job.

To begin they could usefully study a report compiled by Open the Books, a nonpartisan watchdog group, called “Mapping the Swamp: A Study of the Administrative State,” which attempts to provide perspective on the 2 million identified federal government employees who collectively are paid $1 million per minute over a 40-hour work week.

Over the six-year period between 2010 and 2016, the watchdogs found, the number of federal employees making $200,000 per year or more has increased by 165 percent, and the number making more than $100,000 per year has grown by 37 percent. There’s a different story in the private sector, where restraints are the norm and budgets are not regarded as written to be broken. In addition, federal employees on average get 10 annual holidays, 13 sick days, and 20 vacation days per year. Holidays, once established to honor the greats in our history, presidents such as Washington and Lincoln, have been combined to establish long weekends to massage the convenience of the grunions. If every eligible employee used all of the holidays, this would cost the federal treasury more than $22 billion.

If that were not odd (and costly) enough, two federal departments, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Postal Service, a private company owned by the federal government, employ more than half of what the survey calls “disclosed federal workers,” but does not include men and women on active military duty. These two agencies have become the poster children for government waste and inefficiency.

Near the end of the Obama administration, the scandal at the Veterans Administration, the prospect of reform was so daunting that it was thought that abolishing the department and starting all over would be easier and more efficient. This recalls the frustrated city editor who told a young reporter that he had so badly misspelled “Cincinnati” that it couldn’t be fixed.

If Adam Andrzejewski, the director of Open the Books is correct, that there are “small and large agencies across the federal government gaming the system for personal gain,” with taxpayers’ being willfully cheated and abused, this report is a call to Congress and the White House to do something about it.

The cure for such abuse is transparency, which means just for starters that federal departments and agencies should be required to open their books and put everything on the internet for everyone to see. It’s the people’s money and they have every right to know how it’s being spent, and whether they’re getting their money’s worth.

It goes without saying — but we’re happy to say it — that many, and perhaps most, of the men and women working for the government do their jobs faithfully and efficiently, and earn their paychecks. But bureaucracies often give in to the temptation to think first of the bureaucracy, to distort the biblical instruction to “be beautiful and multiply.” Such bureaucracies betray us all.

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