Civil service keeps incompetents stuck to their desks

Mike Royko

September 28, 1990|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

THINKING I MIGHT have missed something while on vacation, I asked a co-worker if there had been a big story out of Washington about hundreds of federal bureaucrats being fired.

"No," he said, "I don't recall seeing anything like that."

How about dozens? Or even a half dozen? Maybe one?

"Uh-uh, nothing of the kind. I'm sure I would have noticed."

How strange, if you think about it.

First we had the S&L scandal, with a final bill to the taxpayers that will be more than $500 billion.

Now we're told that we're going to be stuck with the tab for at least $12 billion in unpaid student loans, farm loans and other federally backed IOUs. And that's just the early estimate. Remember, when the S&L debacle first surfaced, they were talking about $50 billion or less. So nobody really knows what the cost will be to cover the latest round of frauds and deadbeats.

And maybe we'll never know. One federal agency said that it's impossible to tell how many loans are unpaid because the records are in such a shambles that they can't be audited.

Think about that. What if you ran a corporation and your accounting firm told you: "You are losing money but we aren't sure how much because your widget-making division has screwed up their books and records so badly, we can't even audit them." What would your reaction be?

I mean, besides trying to strangle somebody.

Of course, you'd march into the widget-making division and fire the people who caused the mess.

But that's not the way the federal government works. We have agencies and agencies, and even more agencies. And their jobs are to keep an eye on the various industries that make federally insured loans.

If they had done their work, we wouldn't have the massive S&L scandal, the biggest financial mess in this country's history.

Nor would we be waiting for the next muddy shoe to drop. And the next and the next. We wouldn't be hearing the incredible statement that some loan records are so hopelessly confused that they defy audit.

But is anyone being fired? Has anyone been told: "Say, John, I hate to disturb your nap, but we're talking billions here. What have you and your people been doing?"

Of course not. It's as if there is a large wall around the federal bureaucracy. And what goes on within that wall is their business, not ours, even though we have to pay their salaries and cover for their blunders.

And there is such a wall. You can't see it, but it is as thick and impenetrable as anything Brink's could conceive. It's called "civil service."

Some years ago, I gathered numbers on how many federal bureaucrats exist and how many are fired in an average year.

I don't remember the exact results. But think of it this way: Take a bucket of sand. Remove one or two grains of sand. That's about it.

That meant one of two things: Federal employees were remarkably diligent and efficient. Or they were invulnerable.

As the S&L mess has shown us -- and other massive blunders will soon be telling us -- diligence and efficiency aren't running rampant.

So that leaves invulnerability. And that's what the civil service system provides. Once they are in their jobs for a while, it's as if they are bonded to their office chairs with Krazy Glue.

The federal civil service system provides so many safeguards for the bureaucrat that it would be easier to convict one of them of high treason than of being a bumbler. There are hearings and more hearings. Then appeals and more appeals. To fire one, you have to clear more hurdles than an Olympic champion.

So there they remain, stuck to their Krazy Glue chairs, till death or retirement do them part.

When I was young and idealistic, I thought that the old patronage system, with political bosses handing out jobs to the party workers, was evil and corrupt. And, no question, it did lead to considerable profiteering and waste.

But it had one major advantage over civil service. If a political hack goofed up bad enough, there was a simple procedure for getting rid of him. His boss walked in and said: "You're fired."

That's the way it works in most of the real world of employment. And that's the way it should work in Washington.

But, then, whoever said Washington was the real world?

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