Too Many Assaults, Too Little Time

It isn’t possible to keep up with this administration’s assaults on American government (not to mention decency, healthcare, the poor…).

A regular reader sent me a link to an article that highlighted an overlooked passage from Trump’s State of the Union speech.

Standing in front of a divided Congress, with possible obstruction charges looming over him and facing governance struggles produced by his ineffective leadership, the president sought to undermine a 135-year-old law protecting federal civil servants from the whims of tyrants and hacks. “I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” he said.

Now, as the author of the article readily concedes, this sounds perfectly reasonable. We’ve  been regaled for years with stories–some true, most not–about all the red tape that prevents public officials from firing incompetent or insubordinate workers. Of course, as the old saying goes, one person’s red tape is the next person’s accountability…and that, of course, is the issue.

In this case, it’s important to understand just how and why the law Trump wants to repeal was passed in the first place.

“To the winner goes the spoils” applies to politics as much as war. Political patronage persisted far longer at the local level, so most of us don’t realize that until the late 1800s, when a new President took office, he  (it was always he) could fire everyone who worked for the federal government and install his own people. If his victory ushered in a change of parties, that was pretty much what happened. (Federal service wasn’t what you’d call a stable job.)

But in the 1870s, consistency and competence in the federal bureaucracy became more important as the nation’s political and commercial life grew more complex. Americans became increasingly aware of political corruption (see: the Grant administration) and its drag on government and commercial efficiency. When, in July 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by disgruntled office seeker Charles Guiteau, the push for reform gained enough momentum to force Congress to rein in the patronage system.

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 cost its namesake, Sen. George H. Pendleton (Ohio), his job in a political backlash against the new anti-spoils system. Nevertheless, the Pendleton Act was a major step forward for good government, and over the next quarter-century the majority of ordinary and largely essential civil service positions became disconnected from political machinations, filled instead through a standard set of hiring practices and exams, and protected from arbitrary firing.

Today, most state and local governments have implemented similar reforms. A new chief executive–Governor, Mayor– is entitled to policymaking folks who agree with his or her agenda, but not entitled to replace the guy who gives drivers’ tests at the BMV, or the clerk in planning and zoning.

The result is a more stable and experienced government workforce, a Congress that gets accurate reports from its research bureaus and federal departments that provide a certain level of regulatory consistency for citizens and businesses at home and around the world.

Because civil service incorporated mechanisms that prioritized merit-based hiring and firing, rather than finding a spot for your donor’s brother-in-law, the bureaucracy became attractive to minorities; today, African Americans are 30 percent more likely to work in civil service than white Americans. Which brings us back to the danger Trump poses.

Over the past 30 years, conservative valorization of “market solutions” has been accompanied by deeply racialized notions of government inefficiency that aim to undermine these civil rights achievements by invoking the image of a wasteful, corrupt public workforce — one viewed by many Americans as dominated by African Americans.

Trump’s assault on the Pendleton Act isn’t simply part of his desire to dole out jobs to his favored sycophants and toadies. It is another effort to pander to his base, much of which shares this profoundly racist worldview.

Despite the widespread belief that civil service employees can’t be fired, they can be. They simply have to be accorded reasonable due process.

Most of us want government managers to be able to dismiss incompetent people, or people who aren’t doing their jobs. What we don’t want–and what current law prohibits–is permission to hire and fire based upon race, gender, sexual orientation or other identities that offend bigots’ sensibilities but have absolutely nothing to do with competence.

For that matter, I wouldn’t trust Trump or his “best people” to recognize competence if they fell over it.


  1. Sure. I can think of several government employees who I’d like to see replaced right away. Most of Trump’s cabinet, for example, his chief of staff and all the other misogynistic boobs who populate that environment on Pennsylvania Avenue. Stephen Miller should be driving a cab in El Paso. Betsy DeVos should be washing dishes in Elko, NV. Those are just a couple examples.

    Trump’s total disregard for decency, fairness and management norms is our biggest problem with this government. He projects himself into everything and every department while being clueless about how things work. The man does NOT read. He allows non-vetted fools to see top secret information. Gee, do you think some of those folks could be compromised by a few bucks from the Russian operatives that Trump loves so much?

    Everything about this administration screams incompetence and it won’t be fixed until they are all gone. We can start the process in November, and maybe by next Christmas, we’ll have a different collection of Republican fools to bitch about.

  2. Mikey Pence had an opportunity and an obligation to display American Christian sportsmanship to the World, representing the U.S.A. Olympics and deliberately failed in Korea and embarrassed me, a U.S. citizen and veteran of World War Two. Someone teach him that Pride Goeth Before The Fall. He should grow up and be a mensch. He’s costing us a bunch of money so he should be grateful and acquit himself better than an unruly jilted teenager.

  3. I suggested to friends during the race between Hillary and Donnie saying we needed her for her experience in politics.
    Nobody listened and look at what we got….A disaster of a Gang that Can’t………CAN’T.
    Okay, maybe she’d be worse, but I can’t see how. Please, somebody, tell me like I’m a six-year-old.

  4. “To the winner goes the spoils” applies to politics as much as war. Political patronage persisted far longer at the local level, …”

    We appear to have a White House filled with Political patronage personnel; some are highly qualified but not in the areas of government they are responsible for running. Others came from the campaign trail with connections which are at least questionable and at most, treasonable. Physical abuse of women is approved along with sexual abuse of primarily women and girls but not excluding men and boys. The president has virtually no reading comprehension skills and refuses to listen to explanations as he Tweets nonsense almost hourly…but those who can “fire” him for incompetence are aiding and abetting his borderline treasonous actions and rants. Political patronage from the bottom up?

    “What we don’t want–and what current law prohibits–is permission to hire and fire based upon race, gender, sexual orientation or other identities that offend bigots’ sensibilities but have absolutely nothing to do with competence.”

    There appears to be a high level of competence within the current administration to skirt around, over, under and to ignore Trump’s “…Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office…” as REQUIRED in the Constitution as they ignore the chaotic conditions in the White House. This very competent group is referred to as the Congress and the Senate and we can “fire” them in this years elections. We outnumber them but they have more money; can we overpower them in the Primaries and the November elections or will we allow the current incompetence, led by Trump, to continue to run this country by “deconstructing” our government?

  5. Look at the incompetence in the INDOT when Pence was our esteemed governor. They based everything on the lowest bid. We had subpar paving materials, sinking bridges, undersized roundabouts at road intersections. Need I go on. He also appointed folks to many other areas of our state government who were unqualified!

  6. Every time I hear someone say it’s hard to fire a career federal employee, I remind them that it’s supposed to be hard. That being said, you can fire one for conduct or performance issues. Before I finished my career in hospital administration, I was a federal HR Specialist and an HR Manager. In my HR and HA roles, I fired a number of employees for a variety of offenses. Even with their appeal rights, I lost only a handful of cases. As long as you have sufficient cause and follow the appropriate processes, you can prevail. The last thing we need are political appointees forcing careerists to decide between breaking the law or ending their career.

  7. Perhaps one of the most visible recent examples of patronage is Mitch Daniels.

    Per Wiki:
    The Purdue University Board of Trustees unanimously elected Mitch Daniels president of Purdue University on June 21, 2012. As governor, Daniels had appointed 8 of the 10 Board members and had reappointed the other two, which critics claimed was a conflict of interest. A state investigation released in October 2012 found that the circumstances did not violate the Indiana Code of Ethics. Other critics of his selection pointed out that unlike previous Purdue presidents, he lacked a background in academia.
    There was the assault by Daniels on Howard Zinn:
    Shortly after Zinn died in 2010, Daniels e-mailed various education officials about Zinn, the AP said. His e-mail said: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned his book A People’s History of the United States is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

    When an aide responded by saying that a course at Indiana University did use Zinn’s work, Daniels wrote that something should be done about it. “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?” Daniels wrote.
    My comments:
    I wonder if the Trumpet’s (aka Agent Orange ) Comments were meant as a hint to get rid of the Mueller investigation.

  8. I worked for the government in management for 10 years. New employees can be let go without cause during their year of probation. Middle managers who don’t make the effort or take the time to document are the reason some slugs continue in the bureaucracy. I like ‘due process’ instead of potentially whimsical dismissal.

  9. Monotonous Languor –

    As a Purdue graduate I have completely lost pride in my alma mater due to the hiring of Mitch Daniels and how he created his own job.

  10. In response to Jane as a “retired” State employee of 24 years who started working under Governor Orr and was “pushed” into retirement under Mitch Daniels I want to say that the use of “low bid” is mandated under State Law and not a choice.

    Your comments regarding incompetence do have merit and it all started when Mitch got elected and rewrote most State Personnel rules regarding employment. Prior to Mitch Indiana had rules which protected most “merit” employees from politics in both termination and lay-off. While these rules made it more difficult to terminate incompetent employees it was possible by simply following the rules; the rules simply placed checks and balances into the employment system and were intended to protect the skilled and knowledgeable worker from retaliatory termination. Mitch rewrote the rules to a “hire and fire” at will system which basically placed all State employment into a “patronage’ system. This act along with the disbanding of Unions for State employees resulted in the halls of the Government center flowing with the blood of terminated State employees simply because they were of a different political party or thought that they should follow the laws governing their job.

    When Indiana went democratic under Bayh the terminations were typically confined to the Commissioners and Deputy Commissioners of State Agencies; positions which were appointed by the Governor. With Daniels the terminations reached all the way down to the lowest positions in State Government. We now are experiencing the results of this “skill drain”.

    If Trump is successful in creating this same “hire and fire at will” environment in the federal system we can expect similar or worse results. Considering Trump’s propensity for demanding “loyalty oaths” my expectation is that the results will be worse.

  11. Recent state, federal and local administrations have found the magic potion to this troublesome issue – Privatize!

  12. My daughter is a civil service HHS employee in Washington who is acutely aware of the Hatch Act when the discussion turns political. My older and now deceased brother, a real estate broker, used to refer to civil service as “silly service.” I can tell you that with all the public remonstrance against civil service workers that they are in general a very efficient workforce dedicated to the mission of their agency and government in general. Nearly all of my daughter’s fellow employees in her division are multi-degreed, and indeed her secretary is a PhD. These are serious employees a notch or two above political partisans such as Trump who are frustrated that only their leaders (think Pruitt and DeVos) are vulnerable to easy replacement.

    Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, is reputed to be the inventor of the “spoils system” with his view that “to the victor belongs the spoils.” I agree with that view in terms of policy dictates and agency head appointments (subject to Senate approval), but I do not think such a view should be followed down into the civil service ranks of career employees. Civil service employees can be removed under the current system, but due process requires much more than mere proof of the employee’s political views (already constrained by Hatch).

    Unlike some, I think Trump’s idea of removal of due process of rights presently accorded to civil service employees has to do with establishing his dictatorial bent. His appointments are not civil service employees who serve at his pleasure. He apparently wishes to extend such dictatorial control over career civil servants irrespective of their competence in order to satisfy his own power lust for absolute power. Somehow I cannot imagine goose-stepping PhDs bowing to the king.

  13. “Agent Orange”. Another good way to follow the practice of not saying the name of America’s shame which never should be said.

    Of course it’s been authoritarian lore for decades that governance needs to be devolved until it’s no better than make more money regardless of the impact on others. Agent orange is the first high official to have fallen for that and being incapable of leadership he has surrounded himself with toadies and family whose real job is to pretend respect for him. But law prevents him from reaching too far into the administrative state that we the people count on. Don’t like the law? Change it. The one party Congress reminiscent of single party Communism will surely go along as their only real duty is to reward donors.

    Don’t you wish this was satire instead of truth?

  14. Thank you for this article. I used to make similar defenses of teacher tenure which people loved to hate until a community favorite teacher was fired for reasons known only to the school board. Tenure didn’t protect incompetent teachers, but incompetent administrators surely could and did. A lobbyist for school administrators argued that expecting them even to evaluate teachers before dismissing them was just too onerous. It became pretty apparent who was falling down on their job.

    In the case of teachers, they could be disciplined and dismissed for giving the student of a powerful community member a poor grade that was richly deserved, or for disciplining that student, or for not playing them in the last game, or for occupying a position that the principal wanted to fill with a coaching assistant because sports took priority over instruction. Later school administrators sought to discipline or dismiss faculty who exposed mismanagement or financial irregularities at the bargaining table where school board members were present.

    Few if any businesses could survive let alone operate at peak performance if they replaced every employee every 4 years, yet that’s what we used to do in government. As positions have come to require more education, work experience and expertise, maintaining a stable and competent staff has become even more important. Understanding how to prevent and control disease outbreaks is not a partisan concern. Neither is the knowhow to safeguard nuclear reactors or so many other government functions.

    The Koch brothers have made clean air and water and global warming partisan issues, but they shouldn’t be. I have more faith in the civil service scientists than those operating as hired guns for the Koch industry polluters. And that’s the crux of the problem.

  15. Sheila; I am going to bring the question I asked you about renewing drivers license in regards to the Real ID Act to be a requirement in 2020 into the references to incompetence today. I am assuming this Act is part of W’s Patriot Act…I could be wrong, that has happened in the past.

    Two of my friends went to BMV to renew their licenses; they were told that they need proof of their name change (marriage licenses), given a card with a list of items to prove ID. Sent to the City County Building to get copies of marriage licenses they were told the CC Building does not maintain those records and they were sent to the Madison Avenue BMV. They said there were several angry women there also about their marriage license proof and some required proof of divorce.

    My son went to a BMV office this morning to apply for his truck title; he asked about the Real ID Act and the 2020 date and was told that only applied to people who want to board planes and enter government buildings, a gold star would be shown on their license. Why the confusion? Is it only women required to have proof of ID, why only the Madison Avenue site and one other in this city? By 2020 will all BMV branches be fully aware of the law and what is actually needed as proof of ID?

    On to privatization; I complained a few months ago about privatization of my Public Employees Retirement Fund disbursement of funds. Contacted Dan Forestal’s office, he knew nothing but had his Chief of Legislative Affairs check into it and contact me. She said this is not privatization because INPRS only changed the PRIVATE company who has been disbursing our checks the past few years – a fact I was unaware of. I sent a message that private companies performing government work is privatization, sometimes called outsourcing…and she is a Democrat working in a Democratic State Representative’s office.

    Public employee retirees received notice from INPRS that we would receive a letter in January containing a PIN for us to re-register our PERF account. The PIN in that latter was only to allow us access to the new site to re-register; during the process they sent an E-mail with the correct PIN for me to enter to allow access. After completion I discovered TWO E-mails with TWO different PINs so I contacted INPRS asking how to access my account to know which PIN is correct. They E-mailed they needed me to copy and paste my original message and send the last 4 digits of my SSN and my DOB, which I sent with information that I am deaf and cannot call. This morning I received my answer; “I should have received a letter in January containing my PIN to access the registration site and to follow the instructions to re-register my PERF account. They also included two phone numbers if I had further problems.” I replied telling them to please READ my question and reminded them that I am DEAF, that means I cannot hear so cannot call them. I will wait for their response and hope to get an intelligent – competent – answer but hold out little hope. My primary objective and greatest hope is to continue receiving my PERF monthly check as I depend on it for food and meds.

  16. As one would expect, employee competence in the government, as in private industry, follows a bell curve. Some of the most talented and dedicated people in the country are civil servants, along with some of the most unwilling to work – just like in private industry.

    After eight years in government, I spent thirty-five years working for some of the largest and most successful businesses in America. The difficulty of firing people who wouldn’t work was almost identical in and out of government.

    Unlike so many cases in private industry, however, government doesn’t often go out of its way to trash the lives and restrict the pay of its workforce to boost the pay of management. You want evidence? Talk to the transportation workers in New York City who work ten hours a day – every day – and are barely able to avoid the slide into poverty. Talk to the Wall Street investors who freaked out last week on the news that unemployment was down and that small signs of increasing wages had been observed. Or talk to the highly compensated employees in nearly every corporation whose job is, essentially, union busting. Our economic system punishes worker success and exalts executives who show increases in quarterly profits – even those like Wells Fargo using criminal tactics and like the Koch Brothers who employ algorithms to determine which environmental depredations will pay off.

    Relatively few people are ignorant enough to believe the conservative propaganda that government and government employees are the enemy. But with our Poor-Johnny-One-Note president tweeting that line while he lies in bed munching on burgers and swilling Cokes, that number seems to be growing. Devoid of any recognizable talent, Trump can’t fiddle while America burns, but his limitations don’t stop him from lighting or adding fuel to the fire.

  17. Per the Trumpet (aka Agent Orange) “I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” he said.

    It is highly interesting that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks no one to my knowledge in the High Command at the Pentagon, DOD, or our numerous Security Agencies was cashiered or fired.

    As if learning from the past was a grave mistake to be avoided at all costs – Bush the Younger and his High Command with the blessings of Congress voted to invade Iraq and bring about Gulf War 2, because Iraq had all those WMD’s. After all Colin Powell said it was so.

    Prior to Gulf War 2, the band the Dixie Chicks offered up a dissenting view on the impending war. The Dixie Chicks received the full treatment of verbal “shock and awe” from the McMega-Media pundits, including being commercially blackballed. They should have remembered Miranda – You have the Right to remain Silent. Criticizing the Military Industrial Complex is not tolerated.

    We have witnessed a parade (pun intended) of Generals, their chests laden with medals, for over a decade in congressional hearings promising Victory.

    Who should be fired for all of these wrong decisions? The only multiple choice answer is none of the above per our Presidents and Congress – just give them more money.

  18. what can I say… let’s just hang the pigs and get it over with… anybody got a guillotine?.. I’ll make the cocktails!!… ~8)

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