Bush salutes dedication of civil servants

At awards ceremony, president retreats from criticism of work force

War On Terrorism : The Response

October 16, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A president who once criticized the federal work force as part of what was wrong with Washington saluted government workers yesterday as "men and women who have shown the meaning of duty and public sacrifice."

Speaking at a ceremony to honor the government's corps of senior executives, President Bush noted that, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal employees as well as state and local workers, have acted "with remarkable professionalism and purpose."

"They've worked past exhaustion," Bush said, referring to police officers, firefighters, medics, emergency workers and members of the armed forces. "They have risked their lives. And some gave their lives, as well."

Bush noted that the patriotism that has swept the country has resulted in one of the highest levels of trust in government since the pre-Vietnam era.

"In times of war, the American people look to the government more than they do in times of peace," he said. "They count on government to protect them, and we will. They count on government to defeat those who are trying to destroy us, and we will."

In his nod to the Senior Executive Service, the government's career managerial, scientific and technical corps, Bush took a page out of his father's playbook. Some career civil servants still talk about President George Bush's attendance at the 1989 SES awards ceremony, said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

"It's such a shot in the arm," Bonosaro said of Bush's remarks yesterday. "It's evidence of his regard for this group."

During the presidential campaign, Bush appeared to have little regard for federal workers, describing them as slow to respond and adapt to the changing world, and acting with no standards or even rationality.

As president, he has proposed shrinking the 1.8 million-strong federal civilian work force through employee buyouts, early retirement incentives and increased competition between the private sector and federal employees to deliver services.

Yesterday, he reiterated his commitment to limited government, saying, "We must resist pressure to unwisely expand government. ... [Government] should do a few things and do them well."

But he praised the senior executives who, he said, "could be doing something else but have decided, `I want to serve the greatest land on the face of the earth.'"

At the Constitution Hall ceremony, where the U.S. Navy Band played before a stage outfitted in bunting, banners and flags, Bush was met with rousing applause.

"We're starved for acknowledgment of what we do," said Bobby Ferguson, director of programs for the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board in Chicago.

Bush saluted the dedication and integrity of career civil servants.

But he made no mention of a controversy over salary limits that has contributed to senior employees feeling, as Bonosaro said, "less than appreciated."

More than 60 percent of the government's 5,900 career executives earn the same annual salary because of a ceiling - $133,700 a year - linked to Congress' pay.

"They're going to do their jobs no matter what, but we're going to lose a lot to retirement at the first instance they're eligible," said Bonosaro, who noted that 70 percent of the corps is eligible to retire within the next four years.

Bush also made no mention of the nervousness that many federal workers feel as potential targets of terrorism. Although security has been enhanced at most federal buildings since Sept. 11, past government audits and reports found numerous safety and security lapses in federal office buildings.

"All federal employees are concerned about safety, especially if you work in a federal building," said Carol Johnson, executive director for budget at the U.S. Customs Service.

Johnson, a 30-year government worker, said she is confident that a lot of attention is being paid to security: Most entrances to her building are locked, everyone who enters must pass through a metal detector, photo IDs are required and parking security has been increased.

But she says it's hard to know whether that's enough. "We'll have to constantly evaluate what measures are appropriate," she said.

Vicki Hodziewich, another 30-year veteran of government service, says she is also concerned but not gripped with fear. "You can't go around doing your job in fear," she said. "But there is a greater sense of awareness."

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