GOP animosity toward civil servants foolishly shortsighted

GOP animosity toward civil servants foolishly shortsighted
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Leaked reports that the Trump administration will seek to freeze the pay levels of government employees and cut benefits in the next fiscal year beg the question, why do we pay bureaucrats at all?

There are other models for staffing government. Some systems have been quite successful historically, supporting powerful empires that reigned for hundreds of years. Admittedly, their methods were morally abhorrent.  

For example, many administrators of the Mamluk empires were slaves, taken as children from subject peoples and trained as civil servants and warriors. Or consider Han China, during which eunuchs controlled access to the emperor and therefore political power and wealth. 

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There is even an alternative American model. At one time, American consular officials made money not chiefly from salaries but through trading activities in their country of assignment.

       

For those angry at government but queasy about slavery or official conflicts of interest, there are still other options. 

Administrations could replace all federal office holders after every election, from Veterans Affairs hospital doctors to NASA rocket scientists. Or we could fill positions through a military-style draft. Or we could open them up to bidding; corporations could buy their own regulator.

Or, instead, we could remind ourselves of the value of the current system of civil service pay and protections and why it exists in its current form.

We could work to rebuild an earlier consensus regarding government and the attributes we want in our public servants — like competence, efficiency, accountability, nonpartisanship, responsiveness to the serving presidential administration and fidelity to the Constitution and American values and interests.

Such a renewed understanding could help us determine which politicians care about real reform and which are rather trying to subjugate the machinery of government to a partisan agenda.

For example, we would see sniping at “holdovers” as evidence of bad faith. Aside from political appointees, who resign prior to transitions and can be replaced by the incoming president, the government is filled with “holdovers.” That’s the point of the merit-based civil service system set up by the 1883 Pendleton Act.

As a commissioned foreign service officer, I was a George H.W. Bush holdover in the Clinton administration, a Clinton administration holdover in the George W. Bush administration, and a George W. Bush holdover in the Obama administration. So was every military service member I served alongside.

Similarly, use of the term “Deep State” (which, after all, came to recent prominence when it was employed by the religiously-based, illiberal ruling party of Turkey) to refer to normal government activities or decisions one doesn’t like would be a flashing highway sign that indicates “Warning: Dishonest Partisans Ahead.”      

We would reject as irresponsible the unprecedented attacks on individual public servants, not for dereliction of duty but because of perceived political disloyalty. And we would recognize politically-driven calls to “purge” government employees as undemocratic.

It is in the common interest of Americans from across the political spectrum to reject efforts to politicize the technocratic process for setting government salaries. Depoliticization is necessary both to avoid unsupportable civil service salary increases by some politicians or intimidation of civil servants via threats of salary cuts by others.

There is a complex, technical debate about whether civil servants are over- or under-paid. Government critics argue that the lowest-paid government workers receive compensation above private sector levels when benefits are included (though, even if so, that would reflect that the bottom rung of private sector compensation is so grim).

At higher skill levels, however, like the Ivy-educated lawyers I worked with at the State Department, government employees are significantly underpaid, forfeiting millions of dollars in lost salary over a normal career. 

While the temptation to politicize government transitions is as old as Marbury vs. Madison, the current degree of government hatred by some supporters of the president is aberrational and unhealthy for those who harbor it.

First, politicization of government is foolish for either party in the long term. Republicans attacking civil servants in a misguided effort to weaken checks and balances on the Trump administration will regret undermining the impartiality of government when the next Democratic president is elected. 

Second, extreme and irresponsible government-hatred is not a winning political strategy. While Americans have complex attitudes towards government, they value much of what it does.

Third, hyper-partisanship distracts from ongoing conversations about necessary and achievable organizational changes that are only sustainable with broad popular support. 

Whether inclined toward big government or little, Americans should want it to be competently administered, impartial and efficient. (Side note to teenage Libertarians who think the world would be better without government: There are parts of the world experimenting with anarchy, but it’s not looking like an attractive model so far.)

As for the Mamluks and Han Dynasty eunuchs, their empires were challenged from outside and crumbled from within. As the United States girds for 21st-century challenges, we should preserve and strengthen core elements of national power, including the civil service pay and protection system that too many Americans take for granted.

Joseph Cassidy is a global fellow at the Wilson Center, lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a distinguished visiting fellow at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law.