July 21 2014
Fireproof Washington: Time to Abolish Tenure in the Civil Service?
When the IRS scandal broke, we were rightly concerned with pinpointing how high up in government the corruption went. It was more than legitimate to investigate as to whether somebody in the White House might have given a directive to target conservative organizations, in effect silencing them by denying them tax-exempt status.
But all along, I’ve argued that there is something for more corrupting than a highly-placed individual’s directing the IRS to hamper the work of conservatives: a massive and partisan bureaucracy that does this of its own volition. (Bear in mind that you can have both: a viciously partisan civil service and directives from on high to do what it would like to do anyway.)
In an article at NRO headlined “Tenured Partisans,” Richard Samuelson shows how such a highly partisan civil service has developed and why it should be eliminated. Samuelson traces this development to the goal of developing a civil service in which people were hired for their competence. So far so good.
To ensure that civil servants were not hired and fired because of political activity, they given job tenure. This system did not produce the originally desired outcome:
Today we have the worst of both worlds: a tenured and partisan civil service. Government employees have civil-service protection and are seldom fired, only for the most egregious of crimes. Yet they lean to one party. From 1989 to 2012, two-thirds of donations from IRS employees, for example, went to Democrats. Even so, our civil servants seem to think that they are politically neutral. Hence the employees at the VA think it is reasonable to spy on (presumptively partisan) congressional investigators, and hard drives mysteriously get destroyed in the IRS scandal. Laws are for the little people, as Glenn Reynolds likes to say.
The rise of the “fourth branch” of government — the administrative bureaucracy — complicates things further. Obamacare was roughly 2,000 pages long when Congress passed it. Bureaucrats have added thousands more. The Hobby Lobby case was about a rule written by bureaucrats, not by Congress. In fact, Congress probably would never have passed such a law. Worse, our tenured partisans sometimes delegate their jobs to activists. Who drafted the EPA’s new greenhouse regulations? The National Resources Defense Council.
Nowadays, in other words, laws are, in effect, written, interpreted, and enforced by the bureaucratic equivalent of made men who are quite well paid. So much for checks and balances. Moreover, our legal code is so complicated that, as Harvey Silverglate notes, most businesses or individuals are probably guilty of breaking some law somewhere. That puts each of us at the mercy of the government.
This civil service was supposed to be composed of competent, objective people. Indeed, this permanently-empowered civil service grew in part out of the idea that a Ph.D. in social science, which many early civil servants possessed, was the proper qualification to give objective advice on an array of subjects. The bureaucracy that came into being under this rubric is more important today than ever before, even though we do not put as much stock in the social science Ph.D.
But a certain type was drawn to the civil service, not least of all because their jobs, once secured, were safe. Regarding themselves as objective, they are in fact partisan Democrats for the most part. This is a civil service that is collectively unable to fathom that, say, tea party conservatives have anything of value to contribute to politics. Samuelson quotes William F. Buckley: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views."
We have a civil service that is slanted to one side and permanently ensconced. It is time to abolish job tenure, Samuelson argues.
Samuelson has no problem with tenure for clerical workers, mailmen, and others at that level of service (though he would like to make it easier to dismiss them for misconduct or incompetence). But the end of tenure for partisan civil servants might be a first step to reforming the nation’s bureaucracy.
I’d go further: a flat tax or other drastic simplification of the tax system would help us abolish one big chunk of bureaucracy right from the start of a massive program of reform.