Federal employees face a long overdue reckoning.
Give this some thought: We are a nation based on a system of federalism, which means that largely sovereign states are united under a limited federal government that performs only certain essential functions – those enumerated in the Constitution – and leaves all functions not so enumerated to the states by law.
That is the idea. So how did we get to the point where a federal government supposedly so limited has 2.1 million employees? And how did that group of federal employees become such a privileged class that they’re almost impossible to fire – even if they’re demonstrably incompetent – and they enjoy pay and benefits that would make most people working in the private sector blush?
Well: We got to this point because of an unholy and completely corrupt alliance between politicians and federal employee unions. The latter fills the campaign coffers of the former, which makes sure the latter gets rewarded with cushy compensation packages and a virtual guarantee of lifetime employment. It is not only Democrats who have perpetrated this scam on the American people, but to the extent any member of Congress is interested in attacking it, you can find the attackers just about exclusively on the Republican side of the aisle.
This situation has persisted for years because the GOP has never had the numbers to change it, and they’ve never had a president who was really interested fighting the fight. Ronald Reagan was to an extent – the firing of the striking PATCO members being the most awesome example – but even he didn’t fundamentally change the relationship between the federal government and its employees.
Today, it appears Donald Trump is prepared to go much farther, and congressional Republicans are not shying away from the fight. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, who chairs the Government Operations Committee, is offering some hints about what the changes might be:
Chaffetz said he plans to push through wholesale changes to the generous retirement benefits that federal workers receive, by shifting to a market-driven, 401(k)-style plan for new employees.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, seen Thursday, said he plans in Congress to push through wholesale changes to the generous retirement benefits that federal workers receive.
He said the model would be his home state, which six years ago replaced the defined benefit pensions that have disappeared at most private companies with a defined contribution plan for new state and municipal workers.
“We have a Republican president who will help us drive this to the finish line,” Chaffetz said.
The promises go hand in hand with Trump’s promise to shrink the size and reach of government, from eliminating some agencies outright to lifting regulations and running the bureaucracy with fewer people.
Gingrich said the Trump administration probably would look for guidance from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, R, who stripped public employee unions of most of their collective-bargaining rights and forced workers to pay more into their pensions and for health care in what became a bitter political fight.
The White House also can look for lessons from policies advocated by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
As Indiana governor, Pence battled public employee unions and approved pay increases for state workers who receive good performance reviews, a strategy tried at the Defense Department under President George W. Bush but which was poorly managed and eventually abolished. The pay-for-performance idea is nonetheless a rebuke to the government’s system of raises based on longevity.
My question is why they think they can get this done with a bare Senate majority that might only consist of 52 Republicans, some of whom are northeastern liberals who will probably be very nervous about this direction. I suppose it’s possible you could build it into a budget bill such that the absence of a majority doesn’t just default to the status quo, but even in that case you’d still have a tough negotiation between the House, Senate and White House. Susan Collins might be running the country by early spring.
On the merits, it’s hard to find fault with any of this. Even many cities and states have moved away from defined benefit packages precisely because they laid the groundwork for fiscal disasters and – in the case of Detroit – Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The fact that the federal government stubbornly clings to this system is simply demonstrates the power of federal employee unions and the perceived self-interest of their Democrat protectors in Congress. And for the past eight years, in the White House too.
You will hear from the media that these moves are unlikely to save any real money, and thus pointless to undertake. You should disregard that for two reasons: 1. If properly implemented, it will save money in the short term. 2. The change from defined benefits to defined contribution alone will protect the taxpayers down the road from market collapses and the risk of massive retirement obligations that will bust an already way-out-of-balance budget.
By the way, lest anyone claim surprise that Trump would champion such a thing, as he is supposed to be “not a true conservative,” we’ve seen this in my state of Michigan too. In 2010, we elected businessman Rick Snyder, who had no background in government but lots in business. Snyder ran as a Republican but was not believed to have any real pedigree as a philosophical conservative. But Snyder’s experience in business led him to pursue many of the same policies conservatives would seek, not driven by ideology but driven by experience that told him these policies simply reflected good management practices.
If Trump ends up backing policies he learned from running his businesses rather than from years as a conservative activists, what’s the difference? Conservatives are always saying people in the private sector run things better than politicians. OK. Time to find out if that’s really true.