Debating the Role of Federal Employees

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By on September 20, 2017 in Human Resources with 0 Comments

Several recent events highlight the position of federal employees in today’s heated political environment. What should be the role of a federal employee? Recent comments with two different points of view highlight divergent views regarding the federal workforce.

Recent Comments by Hillary Clinton

The Democrats’ 2016 presidential candidate for president may be out of politics now, but her book signing tour has generated considerable publicity. She recently spoke out on her views regarding federal employees. As noted in this article,”(President Trump’s) former opponent Hillary Clinton offered a glimpse into the entirely different atmosphere in which feds may have found themselves if the election had turned out differently.”

With a couple of exceptions, federal employee unions were quick to endorse Clinton’s candidacy and her positions generally were viewed favorably by the unions.

Hillary Clinton speaking before Congress

Former Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton

She recently offered this advice for federal employees: “If [Democrats] can take back one or both houses of Congress in 2018, you will have people you can talk to again.”

“I don’t want us to lose the decades — really, if you added it all up, the thousands of years — of experience in the EPA, in the State Department, in the Labor Department, in a lot of the places being targeted by the administration. At some point they’re going to need you, and the country is going to need you. And I hope you’re still there.”

Obviously, politics and political agendas are in the forefront and the loyalty of federal employees appears to be up for grabs—at least in the minds of some who hope the federal workforce will be useful in meeting the political agenda of those seeking their loyalty.

2016 Election and the Deep State

Mrs. Clinton’s remarks to federal employees noted above are hardly unique. Numerous articles cite the existence of a “deep state,” referring to federal employees and others who work behind the scenes to derail Trump administration policies. There is some fear and anger among those with a different view of the federal workforce and its appropriate role in an administration with significant policy differences from the previous president.

Deep State Working Against the President?

Some Congressmen have urged federal employees to risk their career by speaking out against the Trump administration. They even published a pamphlet on how to encrypt communications and the benefits of “Speaking Truth to Power.” (See Want to Take on the Trump Administration? These Congressmen Have Released a Guide to Help You)

At least one former Trump administration official who recently left his government position refers to the “deep state” which refers to people often working for the federal government but strongly opposed to the new president’s policy positions.

Dr. Sebastian Gorka, a former Special assistant to President Trump, contends it should be called a “permanent state” as some in government are openly pursuing their own interests. He refers to these actions as a “soft coup” by those in the “permanent state.”  He says there are a large number of deep state federal employees now and that this is “scary for democracy.” This is because the bureaucracy is designed, as noted below, to serve the president but he says that is often not happening today.

Dr. Sebastian Gorka

Dr. Sebastian Gorka

He cites 125 national security leaks coming out in the first six months of the administration, about one per day, which is seven times the number under Presidents Bush or Obama. At least 60 of these leaks concerned national security matters.

And, he argues, some in government and some agencies view the administration as “the enemy,” as he was told by a senior official in a federal agency while he was at the White House. The idea that an agency views the White House as “the enemy” necessarily “leads to very dangerous things.” The attitude by some federal employees that they were employed before the president was there, they will be there after he leaves, and their expertise and knowledge take precedence over the nation’s highest elected official is “not democracy and that is not the American way.”

Why Is There a Professional Federal Workforce?

The federal civil service was created as a politically neutral, professional workforce with hiring based on a merit system. The intent was to be a cadre of professional employees working to serve the administration assuming power as a result of a democratic election.

This reform movement was the result of the “spoils system” created in the 19th century by President Andrew Jackson. After Jackson’s election in 1828, he implemented a philosophy of “to the victors go the spoils.”

Portrait of Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States

In practice, this meant that he could fill federal jobs with his political supporters. He set a precedent followed by the major parties for the next fifty years and new presidents were inundated by those who wanted a federal job. A disappointed job seeker, who had worked in the Garfield campaign, shot President Garfield in 1881.

To reduce the influence of politics and to retain the non-political nature of the federal workforce,  restrictions were placed on federal employees regarding politics and political activity. Of course, there are also protections for federal employees, and there is no longer a massive turnover of federal workers who are fired and replaced by supporters of the most recent winner.

Setting Up a Merit System

The result of the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 was the Pendleton Act of 1883 which mandated competitive examinations for federal employees rather than political loyalty or affiliation. In order to enforce the merit system, the Act established the United States Civil Service Commission.

In 1912, the Lloyd-Lafollette act was passed to provide job protection for federal employees who were subject to politically motivated removals. More recently, competitive examinations were eliminated as a way of selecting the most qualified people to fill most government positions without regard to the political affiliation of those who are hired to work for Uncle Sam.

The Hatch Act was passed in 1939, and modified in 1993, by removing the prohibition on participation in “political management or political campaigns.”

There have been further modifications in the Hatch Act, and the Office of Personnel Management issued a new rule in 2014 implementing the most recent changes. (See Hatch Act Modifications Reflected in New OPM Rule) Generally, the changes implemented since it was passed in 1939 have weakened the original restrictions.

What Should a Federal Employee Do?

Human nature has not changed since the 1800’s. There has always been—and obviously still is—tension between the desire of the political class to use the federal workforce for their own goals and a preference for a workforce that is professional, efficient and works to implement the policies of the administration in power.

While there is no longer a spoils system for hiring federal employees, there are a number of federal jobs that go to political supporters of the administration. These are usually political appointees appointed to high level jobs throughout federal agencies. Their goal is often to ensure the federal bureaucracy is efficient and generally supports the administration in implementing the mission of the each agency.

Role of Unions Has Changed Federal Bureaucracy

Unions have certainly altered the balance in creating a professional, non-political cadre of federal workers. Federal employee unions play an active role in federal elections. They seek money to elect candidates they favor (usually Democrats) and seek to defeat politicians with whom they disagree (usually Republicans). (See Tallying Political Donations from Federal Employees and Unions)

Unions did not have significant influence in the federal government until President Kennedy issued an executive order in 1962 granting unions the right to represent employees. While their power and influence was relatively weak initially, they have gained power and are now an established interest group that seeks to influence elections, policies and legislation.

While we are a long way from the spoils system of the 19th century, the role of government employee unions has legitimized the existence of a strong political element into the federal workforce.

Federal employees today are working in an environment that is often much different than what existed in previous decades. There may be more pressure to “resist” and to stick around collecting a paycheck until a new administration assumes power on the assumption the next administration will be different. There is also an assumption an employee will work to support the administration and there will be considerable pressure to fulfill that job requirement.

Employees can resign if they believe they cannot support the current administration but that means giving up generous benefits and a decent paycheck. Leaving a secure job without having another position lined up may be a form of financial suicide for dubious goals with no tangible financial benefit.

Having worked at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and its predecessor agency under different administrations with widely divergent agendas, I found myself doing training seminars in agencies on the same topic but with a significantly different political philosophy as administrations changed. I viewed my role as one of explaining the federal system as outlined in legislation, ignored the philosophical implications when possible, and consistently received promotions under liberal and conservative administrations.

What is different now is that Congressmen and others with some influence in government urge federal employees to become politically active in visible ways—possibly including leaking information with national security implications or damaging the mission of a federal agency.

A federal employee with a strong ideological bent and who is willing to put a good career at risk in favor of pursuing a political agenda should consider seeking a new job outside the civil service system. Finding a job after having been terminated by a federal agency will be more difficult.

© 2019 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.

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About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47

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