- - Wednesday, July 11, 2018


Donald Trump says he wants excellence and higher productivity in government and you might think liberals, always eager to expand the work of government, would stand up and applaud. But there’s not even the sound of one hand clapping. The reaction of the “progressives” to attempt to modernize civil service rules that monitor the hiring and firing of federal workers — reforms that could start taking place this week — has been a mixture of one part fear and two parts loathing.

The president’s new workplace rules are meant to achieve two goals. The rules would bend federal pay scales to make it easier to dismiss incompetent or disruptive employees. The new rules would place stricter limits on how much time government workers can spend on the job engaging in union activities. These activities are inexplicably called “official time,” but the activities are anything but official. “Official” would be moving the paperwork more efficiently.

Most of us think making the 2 million federal employees subject to the same sensible workplace rules that govern the private workplace is something that should have been done a long time ago. But nearly every government union, including the National Treasury Employees Union, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees have challenged the Trump administration decrees with lawsuits. Tony Reardon, president of the Treasury union, scorched the work rules as “reprehensible,” an “attack against working-class Americans” and other bad things. Americans in private industry and commerce work to similar standards of performance, and most succeed. Couldn’t workers at the Treasury Department succeed, too?

Civil service rules, many dating from the 19th century, were designed to eliminate corruption and politics in the federal workplace. Government jobs were passed out as plums in those days, the jobs requiring little work and no supervision were sometimes called “brother-in-law jobs.” Reforms by union reckoning are “politicizing” the federal workplace. But “politics” is the grease that makes government go, and sometimes the grease is applied with lavish attention to subverting the agenda of the prevailing administration. There’s often punishment for anyone who gets in the way, whether of the political agenda at the FBI, where Job One was to “stop Trump,” or at the Internal Revenue Service in the Obama administration, where the approved agenda was to hurt conservatives by any means necessary.

The first question to occur to a private-sector employee is why taxpayers should have to pay for any union business on “the company dime” when the company is the government. The unions argue that such union activity is in “the public interest.” But how is that? The federal government is running trillion-dollar deficits, and what’s in the public interest now is that the government not waste a single dime.

Federal work rules written in the 1970s make dismissing “non-performing workers” almost impossible. Between 2004 and 2013, the average yearly number of federal employees fired because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do their jobs was 4,000 workers. This is a rate of 0.2 per 1,000. Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, once suggested firing the least-efficient 10 percent of workers every year as a way to increase efficiency. That’s harsh, but federal administrators can’t get rid of even one-tenth of 1 percent of the easy riders. This doesn’t do much for the morale and efficiency of the rest of the workers who are doing their jobs with efficiency and dispatch.

Everyone in the place knows who the easy riders are, and can see how they run the legal obstacles erected by the unions to challenge managers who try to give the pink slip to shirkers and bunglers. One reason trust in government is at record low are the rules that give government employees a sweet deal in wages, benefits and lifetime job security that far surpasses what is available anywhere else. The minimum wage in government, including benefits, now approaches $100,000 a year.

We should reward the best public servants — police officers, teachers, clerks, accountants — with better pay, and eliminating the easy and disruptive riders. This is a search for excellence, which Americans who pay for excellence have a right to expect.

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