Republicans are making hay out of a number of recent missteps by federal government agencies. The CDC’s slow response to ebola in Texas, the failure of the Secret Service to prevent an intruder from entering the White House, and the website snafu when Obamacare was first rolled out, all come in for incessant criticism. This criticism is overdone, of course. Only two people have been infected by the ebola virus in the United States, and the official response has steadied in recent days. The President wasn’t actually in the White House when the intrusion occurred, and he continues to be heavily protected by Secret Service agents wherever he goes. Obamacare has turned out to be a great success after overcoming its initial hiccups.
Meanwhile, the federal government, acting under the 2009 stimulus legislation, has spearheaded a lengthy economic recovery that has created 2.5 million jobs. Even the much-maligned Veterans Health Administration remains popular with its users, veterans themselves, because of the excellent health services it provides.
Still, there have been missteps, and it’s fair to ask where the fault might lie.
Some of the problems are decades old. The Carter administration, faced with a court decision finding the civil service entrance exam discriminatory, did away with the exam altogether — an serious case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The exam, which had channeled bright young people from around the country into entry-level federal management positions, has been replaced by a cumbersome application process that delays hiring and absorbs endless hours of time in federal offices. The armed forces and the foreign service continue to use entrance exams, suggesting that ways could have been found to overcome discrimination concerns and retain the civil service exam as a major path for entry into a government career.
During the Reagan era, the civil service retirement system, with a defined benefit package, was replaced by a more portable system including a 401k component and Social Security. This reform tended to make government service less a career, in which one accepted lower pay than in the private sector in exchange for a secure retirement, and more of a way station where talented young people gain credentials before moving on. In this same era, government came to rely more and more on contractors rather than the civil service itself to perform work — a change that led directly to the breakdown of the Obamacare website.
But the problems of government do not lie exclusively in the distant past.
Our current Congress and other recent congresses must bear much of the blame for breakdowns in the civil service, where morale is at all time lows. For nineteen years, Congress has failed to pass the critical appropriations bills, needed to fund government agencies, by October 1, when the fiscal year begins. This year, Congress is batting exactly zero when it comes to appropriations legislation, creating uncertainty and delays in government agencies trying to figure out exactly what can be spent and when. Typically, the appropriations process concludes months into the fiscal year, usually through a vast omnibus bill covering all unfinished appropriations. Then agencies rush to spend unused funds, creating inevitable inefficiencies.
Rumors of possible shutdowns start to spread through the civil service when the appropriations process slows, undermining morale and wasting time as managers start to plan for a crisis that may not occur. In the worst-case scenario, a shutdown does take place, as happened in 2013. The estimated cost to the economy was $24 billion, and the impact on morale and efficiency in the federal workplace was devastating. Before the shutdown, while workers fretted, managers devoted precious time to deciding which were essential and which would be laid off. Some 800,000 were actually furloughed in this Republican-induced debacle that seemed designed to weaken the federal workforce.
Budget reductions and the sequester have further damaged the capabilities of government. The harm done to the CDC and the National Institutes of Health has received much attention during the ebola crisis.
Finally, federal workers have been denied a pay increase, thanks to Congress, for three of the last four years. The increase for 2014, when a raise was finally granted, was just 1 per cent. This is a formula for discouraging workers from trying their best, and for encouraging talented, experienced people to leave government service.
So if you’re wondering why the federal government doesn’t seem to be working as well as it should, look no further than Congress.
Our congressman in New York’s 23rd, Tom Reed, has been at the forefront in promoting budget cuts, the sequester, and the 2013 government shutdown.
Voters in our district deserve a federal government that functions at peak efficiency, and to get it, we need to elect a candidate who knows that government has a vital role to play in crating jobs, protecting the environment, helping seniors, strengthening education, and repairing infrastructure. That candidate is Martha Robertson.