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A kind word for the spoils system.

The liberal distrust of religion has been matched at times by a distrust of politics--the assumption that its practitioners were crude philistines or crooked deceivers. But, as Charles Peters wrote in 1976, increased participation in the workings of government is key to building a sense of community.

Anyone who has had a reasonable amount of contact with the federal government has encountered people who should be fired. There are some superb civil servants-maybe 10 percent of the total-who have every right to become indignant at blanket criticism of government workers. There are another 50 to 60 percent who range from adequate to good. Unfortunately, that leaves 30 or 40 percent from marginal to outright incompetent.

Yet fewer than I percent are fired each year. This is because 93 percent are under some form of civil service and therefore virtually impossible to fire.

Imagine yourself a supervisor with an employee who does nothing but read the paper and take coffee breaks. Thinking of firing him, you might turn to Title 5 of the U.S. Code and peruse parts 752.101 through 752.402 and 772.101 through 772.404, which describe one hearing and appeal after another. By the time you reached the end of 772.404, you'd say the hell with it and toss him the sports section.

I came to this position after a long journey through government that I began on the other side of the civil service question,

In the late 1950s, while working on the staff of the West Virginia legislature, I drafted a bill designed to transform a patronage-ridden personnel system into a civil service based on merit and offering genuine career protection for state employees. Wanting to get that bill enacted into law was one of the reasons I ran for the legislature in the next election, and it was a proud day in my life when the bill, bearing my name, was passed in the following session.

Then I came to Washington. Having seen the evils of too much political patronage, I was now exposed to the evils of too much civil service. The terrible disruption of continuity that came from massive personnel changes following each election in West Virginia was offset in Washington by the defensiveness and caution of civil servants primarily devoted to the protection of the institution for which they worked. If you can be fired only if your job is abolished-as is the case with practically all civil servants-then your only fear is that your agency will be diminished in a way that might threaten your job. Furthermore, the civil servant is not accountable to the public he is supposed to be serving.

It is widely assumed that a political patronage system will result in unqualified people, not selected on merit, making decisions for partisan political reasons. Why do political employees have to be unqualified? You can require by law that a politically appointed secretary be able to type 50 words a minute, just like the civil service appointee.

The only real advantage I have seen to the career, civil servant is continuity. So instead of abolishing the civil service, I would urge cutting it by 50 percent and filling the remaining half with political appointees who can be fired at any time.

Being able to fire people is important for two reasons: 1) to permit you to hire the people you want and to get rid of those you don't want, and 2) to make it possible for you to attract the kind of risk-takers who are repelled by the safe civil service and the political emasculation it entails.

The problem with achieving all this is that for years Americans have been brainwashed by textbooks that make politics sound bad and civil service sound shiny clean.

We have an idiotic regard for people who are "above" politics. James Forrestal, then secretary of defense, and one of countless possible examples, was praised by The New York Times for being above politics when he didn't support Truman in 1948. He and the Times were astounded when Truman fired him. Forrestal was a Coriolanus. For him, being above politics really meant above the mob.

We have too many Forrestals now, and what they don't understand is that being above the mob means being above the practice of democratic politics. They, and a good many of the rest of us, have forgotten that democratic politics is supposed to be the way we determine who governs this country.
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Title Annotation:Special Anniversary Section: Who We Are; What We Believe; Why We Believe It
Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Words:746
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