The Bush administration says it's too difficult to fire and redeploy federal workers under the existing civil service system -- so the GOP bill creating the big new "Department of Homeland Security" would make it easier.
The Democrats -- serving their government-employee constituency (for whom preserving civil service protection is Job One) -- counter that making it easier to fire employees would open the door to politicization. As WaPo reports:
Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) warned that too much flexibility would take the federal workforce back to an era when people were hired and fired based on party affiliation and other arbitrary reasons. ….
"I don't want to see someone fired because they're a Republican or a Democrat."
The problem is that both sides are right. The solution to the problem -- the solution that might break the World-War-I-like stalemate now holding up the "Homeland Security" reorganization -- is highly sophisticated, yet Solomonic in its evenhanded wisdom: Make it easier to fire half the workers.
I'm not joking here, not even half-joking. The plan I'm suggesting -- the "50/50 Plan" long proposed by civil-service reformer and Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters -- isn't a glib, superficial, getting-to-"Yes" compromise. It is, I claim, a profound, radical non-compromise. I realized this only after several years of writing earnest, worthy articles on civil service reform -- particularly the problem of firing incompetents -- during the Carter and Reagan years.
Initially, my notion (like the notion of most of the official civil service reformers) was Bushian -- it's too hard to fire incompetent government workers. Make it easier! Why is it too hard? The basic requirements of civil service due process -- notices, hearings, appeals -- may not sound onerous on paper, but to government managers they translate into the knowledge that firing someone means building a paper record and then enduring what can easily be a year of litigation. That means it's usually easier to try to work around an incompetent than to fire him. The resulting cost to citizens isn't that their government agencies are filled with outright slackers and dolts; it's that their government agencies are filled with ordinary people of ordinary talent -- and spouses, children, and hobbies -- who know they only have to try hard enough not to get fired. I didn't believe this until I worked in the federal bureaucracy briefly, in 1977, and then left for a small, private business where employees could be hired and fired at will and results actually mattered.
The Bushies are surely right to seek better than the usual performance from their new anti-terror department. But what should the rules be? If all federal employees could be hired and fired at will, that really might turn all government into a patronage system. (The accepted term for those few federal employees who can be fired "at will" is "political appointees.") The costs of a full-bore patronage system are familiar too: loss of institutional memory (as the losing party's workers get fired), employees who are too scared of being sacked to blow the whistle (the way protected civil servants famously blew the whistle on Nixon).
OK, you say (as I used to say) -- let's find the level of due process that makes it difficult to fire an employee for bad reasons (e.g., because of his party affiliation) but still makes it easy enough to fire him for mediocre performance. Then we can mandate that level across the board. Why not?
Because there is no such level, that's why not.
If you make it easy enough to fire workers for mediocrity, you also make it easy to fire workers for all the other reasons bosses might want to fire workers, including purely political reasons (e.g., because they are Democrats). Trying to distinguish between the reasons for a firing -- declaring, for example, that managers can fire workers instantly for poor performance but only after notices and hearings if ideology is involved -- isn't a solution to this dilemma. Just determining which rule should apply -- i.e., whether the firing is for performance or ideology -- will take so many notices and hearings that you might as well have required them in the first place.