What Kind of Employee is a Government Employee?


What Kind of Employee is a Government Employee?

Speech to Federal Labor Relations Authority
20th Anniversary Conference
Washington, DC
June 15, 1999

By Abner J. Mikva


     In 1957, I was a kid legislator in the Illinois state legislature, and I set a record for introducing more bills as a freshman than any previous member. Of course, none of them passed, which largely was a good thing. I had solutions for problems that people didn't even know that they had. But the contents of one of those bills largely had been crafted by people like Arthur Goldberg, Willard Wirtz, and Archibald Cox. It was a state labor authority bill, and it was so good that both the business community and the labor movement opposed it. It was at least since then that I started to wonder about what kind of employee is a government employee.

     The first thing I learned is that there is all the difference in the world between the perception of a government employee and the reality--at least as far as non-government people are concerned. The NGP's, the taxpayers, don't always connect government employees with the normal requirements of employment. They don't always connect you with your obligations to pay the mortgage, to feed and clothe your family, to educate your children. They make assumptions about your working conditions that are unreal. Their oft-expressed hostility to and suspicion of government spills off on to you, the employees of government.

     Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I have been around government long enough and in enough different branches to know that not everybody who works for the government is a paragon of virtue. I have met bureaucrats. I am no longer satisfied with Vice President Alben Barkley's definition of a bureaucrat. He said in 1948 that a "bureaucrat is a Democrat that has a job that some Republican wants." There is such a thing as a bureaucracy.

     This dichotomy--between the perception and reality of the individual government employee--and the continuing conundrum of how to structure good government and good working conditions for government employees have plagued the decision makers in every branch of our government. The problems are as old as government itself.

     Recently, I was reading one of the many attacks on government and government employees. It lambasted government's "abuses and usurpations", and government's attempts to establish "an absolute tyranny over the states." It claimed that government had created an army of usurpatious bureaucrats and "multitudes of new offices." Every day, according to this account, government sends out "swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance." This isn't an excerpt from one of Rush Limbaugh's diatribes, or even from the literature of any of the right-wing militias that dominate our mid-western and western states. It is verbatim from the Declaration of Independence. So the problems are not new. And they confront every branch of every government at every level. I can speak of that first-hand.

     After my state legislative stint, I went to Congress. One of the momentous statutes we passed in 1978 brings us together today. Title 7 of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 created the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Actually, Title 7--labor relations in general--was the portion of the 1978 legislation that President Jimmy Carter and his administration were most ambivalent about. His chief concern was to make good on his campaign promise to get control of the bloated, inflexible civil service system. Only after a threatened revolt by needed allies in Congress, and in the labor movement, was Title 7 added to the bill. The main parts of the bill as far as the Administration was concerned were the replacement of the Civil Service commission with the Merit Systems Protection Board an the Office of Personnel Management, and the creation of a Senior Executive System to create flexibility in personnel practices for senior career employees.

     There was a constant tug-of-war between Congress, egged on by its union allies, and the Carter Administration. I was not on any of the relevant committees, but the warfare was so fierce that even as a lowly foot soldier, I had numerous visits from Scottie Campbell, the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission and the chief guru of the Administration's proposals and from the various union lobbyists whose agenda was totally different from President Carter's. While Scottie Campbell tried to maintain concern for the well being of the federal work force, it was not easy. Jimmy Carter had run against the government, and was elected with promises to clean up the mess in Washington.

     The primary "mess" was the Watergate scandal. A former Attorney General, a White House Counsel, and numerous other appointed political figures went to jail. It hardly seemed to matter that the "mess" involved political appointees almost exclusively, and that the career employees were no part of the problem. The political rhetoric lumped all payrollers together, and that political rhetoric continued through several more elections. There were sufficient scandals at every level of government to provide the ammunition. In Chicago, a crusading U.S. Attorney broke the unwritten understanding of many years which required the feds to keep out of local government problems. He indicted a number of Chicago aldermen and other public officials. That led one of the City Hall precinct captains to complain, "Gee, if they were going to enforce the law, they could have given us six months notice."

     In that same year, 1978, Congress passed te Ethics in Government Act. The most prominent part of that statute established the Independent Counsel mechanism--about to breathe its last gasp later this month. It added faculty to the schools for scandal. And so, for the next 20 years, at least until the 1996 election, government, and government employees, were denounced as the enemies.

     And it was more than rhetoric. The air controllers learned after the 1980 election that the private assurances they received from elected officials were not enough to protect them from President Reagan's wrath. They were fired. And they learned even as late as 1988, that the "gentler, kinder" America that President Bush promised did not include their readmission to federal employ.

     I spent most of that time after 1978 observing the fruits of our 1978 labors as a judge on the Court of Appeals here in Washington. We reviewed a lot of MSPB cases and some FLRA cases. I wish I could tell you that I saw the 1978 reforms working the good that was promised. Mostly, I saw confirmation of the dire predictions that the Senior Executive Service reforms would undermine the merit structure of the old Civil Service without accomplishing much good. I saw the "flexibility" of the 1978 Act used to manipulate personnel practices for political purposes. And I saw the FLRA too frequently end up modeling itself or being modeled after the National Labor Relations Board, an agency that has had its own problems. And during much of that period, I saw my court reviewing far too many FLRA decisions, often not too approvingly.

     The Clinton-Gore Administration's entry into the field had campaigned under the slogan of "reinventing government." The touchstone of that effort has been to reduce the number of government employees in almost every category. It is an effort that has been joyously aided and abetted by the Congress, which also gets elected on anti-government slogans.

     While the job reductions have been sensitive to individual employees, most of them taking place through attrition and early retirement programs, they have not been sensitive to the needs of the beneficiaries. And so, despite a substantial increase in the number of immigrants each year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is told to handle its case-load with fewer employees. Last winter, long lines of cold immigrants waited for hours to get to make an appointment to see somebody at the Chicago office of the INS about urgent immigration matters. Despite the fact that there are more senior citizens with medicare and social security problems than ever before, the field force of the Social Security offices are told to do with fewer people to handle the increases.

     I sat in on many of the sessions where the government re-invention plans were laid. The measuring stick of successful re-invention is not how much better government is working, but how fewer government employees are on the payroll. We have privatized everything that isn't nailed down--jails, garbage collection, housing programs, investigative activities. We haven't yet privatized Congress, although some cynics suggest that happened long ago. We have created paperwork reduction proposals that cut down more trees in the reduction than are saved by the reduction. The driving force always seems to be: can we have less government employees, and perhaps lower expenditures. We never ask whether the function will be performed better.

     And we never seem to ask whether government employment will be made more desirable by any of the policy decisions being made. Although some lip service was paid to that concept when the Senior Executive Service was established, the track record belies any such improvements. We have never recognized in any meaningful way that paychecks are as important to most government employees as they are to private sector employees. We have allowed a numbing gap to occur between private sector and public sector jobs. It has become almost impossible to raise and educate a family on a public job paycheck. Pay has become the single biggest deterrent to getting and keeping the best and the brightest in the public work force. When added to the bad jokes and the depressing lack of support for government and its employees from our elected political leaders, it is no wonder that government recruitment is so hard. When I asked one of my recent law school classes, consisting of 40 students, whether they would consider a government job anywhere along the line, only two responded affirmatively. And I was teaching them government!! The idea that I was giving them tools to make rich clients richer by besting some government entity in an adversarial proceeding was very depressing.

     I know that birthday occasions are supposed to be celebrative. And there are signs that FLRA has been moving in the right direction over the last 20 years. From the time that I stepped down as a judge in 1994 until the present, the percentage of agency cases that have been affirmed in the courts has almost doubled. I hope my leaving was not the cause for such improvement. During my tenure on the court, the number of decisions for which review was sought dropped from a high of almost one fourth of all the FLRA decisions to less than 4 per cent. Your current chair, Phyllis Segal, is recognized as one of the innovative and thoughtful leaders in government relations. And I hope her stepping down from the agency is just a brief hiatus from government service and not a leaving.

     But if I were grading myself on the legislative efforts of Congress in 1978, and its effect on good government, I would grade D. We haven't made government employment any more desirable, and we haven't restored the faith of the people that their government and its employees work and work well. (Jury story)

     Unfortunately, most Americans are in the category of my apocryphal Chicago juror. When President Clinton was inaugurated in 1992, only 19 percent of the American people trusted government "most of the time." That perception has become worse. Last year, over half of the respondents to a poll said that government policies hinder, rather than help "in trying to achieve the American dream."

     Many years ago, Thomas Jefferson said, "My God, how little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy." Those blessings are preserved and protected by people who work for government, people like you. We have to make our countrymen aware that the government works well, and that the government is us.