Drain the swamp? Federal workers dedicate their careers to service
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“Drain the swamp!”

It’s an expression that refers to the historical and topographical fact that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp and had to be drained regularly to reduce mosquitoes and prevent the transmission of malaria, a disease that killed tens of thousands of early American settlers.

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Since then, “drain the swamp” has morphed into what may be the most overused verbiage by U.S. politicians to target the enemy among us.

 

Ronald Reagan embraced the phrase during his first term in the 1980s to cut government waste and bureaucracy. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi invoked it as part of her rallying cry seeking to end decades of Republican rule in the House in 2006.

During the Trump presidency, “drain the swamp” has become a catch-all-phrase for anyone who doesn’t align with the “Make America Great Again” agenda, whether they be a lobbyist, politician, or bureaucrat.

On any given day, it remains unclear who resides in the swamp, who is entitled to drain it  — the categories are constantly shifting.

Worryingly though, one crowd has been consistently in the muck — the government worker, the career bureaucrat.

They are trying to “take control of your healthcare choices,” said an advertisement airing on CNN, in anticipation of the vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) last week.

Last weekend at a rally in West Virginia, Vice President Pence said the Trump administration is working diligently to, “stop unelected bureaucrats from killing jobs and crippling the economy, from the comfort of their taxpayer-funded metal desks in Washington, D.C.”

After a while, this sweeping rhetoric can become demoralizing to a government workforce.

On a recent visit to the U.S. State Department, I met up with a long-time friend and Foreign Service officer. The rendezvous was around the same time that rumors were circulating that Trump would propose the State Department see a nearly 30 percent cut to its budget. These reports proved to be true.

Testifying before Congress, Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis said, “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition." But that’s a concern for another article!

Clearing me through security, my friend said half-jokingly, “Welcome to the land of the swamp creatures!” In listening to her talk about the day-to-day, I could tell that it bothered her.

And how could it not? She had fought hard for all she had achieved, and her work in the Foreign Service was a source of pride to her. Over the decades, in missions overseas, she had dealt with every imaginable crisis, from security lock-downs in violent conflict zones, to battling one of the world’s deadliest contagions.

It was as if her years of dedicated service were being reduced to a caricature for political convenience.

Days later, I was on the phone with another friend in the Foreign Service, who would soon retire after nearly 40 years. She had been based overseas for half of her career, often serving on hardship assignments, and in post-conflict environments. A generation of young foreign and civil service officers had been inspired by her work in service to both Republican and Democratic administrations.

At the close of our conversation she announced, “I will be leaving the department in a month’s time.” She explained that while she was willing to stay on, and offered to serve the new president, there were no takers.

So my friend would retire, and with her, a set of leadership skills and an institutional memory which would have served the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, well.

After living and working in Washington for nearly three decades, I have come to know many Foreign Service officers, as well as career civil servants at federal agencies. Not one arrived to town with the hope of securing a free ride, a forever taxpayer-funded package of salary and benefits. Their choices were deliberate and personal, many drawn to our nation’s capital by the quintessentially American ideal that they could contribute to something larger than themselves, despite full knowledge of the sacrifices them, and their families, could face.  

These bureaucrats and career government officers do their job irrespective of the political fortunes of any one candidate or party. Their oath is to the United States of America.  

I haven’t read the “Art of the Deal.” Notwithstanding, basic business logic would suggests that if you hoped to run the federal government successfully, and motivate a largely inherited workforce, that the operation should not be run as if it were hostile take-over.

To the contrary, the transition should look more like an acquisition, enlisting the best and brightest from within to work with the new leadership on a game plan that will deliver better results and greater efficiencies.

At a minimum, we would all be better off if we stopped associating our political opponents with blood-sucking, disease-carrying pests.

K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016), Finalist, Forward Reviews INDIES ‘Book of the Year’ Awards in biography and memoir.


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