Civil Service Will Remember Reagan as the Anti-Government President
By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page B02
On Jan. 20, 1981, in his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan laid out his view on governing in a few words that many still remember: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
Reagan, during his eight years in office, tried to follow up that rhetoric with actions that numerous federal employees at the time saw as threatening and that still hover like ghosts in some parts of the government.
The 40th president, who died Saturday, changed the course of federal labor relations by firing 13,000 striking air traffic controllers. He proposed budgets to cut programs and curb the bureaucracy. He waged a war against government waste. He proposed eliminating thousands of federal jobs as part of an effort to shift federal programs to the states. He encouraged contracting out. He supported an overhaul of federal pensions. He backed broader use of drug and polygraph testing of federal workers.
"He was the most anti-government president of our times by far," said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor who studies the civil service. Light argues that Reagan's "attitude toward government was to constrain and weaken the government's ability to act."
Despite the aggressive agenda, many of Reagan's plans did not work out as envisioned, and a number of his proposals were softened by Congress. "Reagan's bark was worse than his bite," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
For example, federal employee pay raises during the Reagan administration fell in roughly the same range as in more recent years -- typically 3 percent to 4 percent increases. (In 1986, however, there was no federal pay raise and no cost-of-living adjustment for federal retirees, primarily because of efforts to reduce the deficit. During the Reagan years, twice-yearly COLA payments for retirees were eliminated and other changes were made in the COLA formula.)
Federal employment under Reagan remained generally steady -- about 2.1 million from fiscal 1981 through 1988, according to historical tables in the federal budget. But he did change the mix. During that time, the Defense Department picked up about 60,000 civil service positions, while non-defense agencies dropped by a similar number.
"We were concerned that programs and federal employment [were] going to be used to get the deficits down. That didn't really happen," Gage said. "He went a little soft on it in his second term."
But Reagan shook up a lot of federal employees in his first years. The Reagan administration did not shy from using reductions in force, and reported laying off about 15,000 federal workers by the fall of 1981. Washington was hit twice as hard as any other region of the country, Democrats claimed.
Donald Devine, Reagan's chief civil service adviser from 1981 to 1985, said the administration cut about 75,000 full-time positions, but added, "the hard thing in later years was keeping it down."
Reagan's decision to fire the air controllers and break the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association is widely regarded as his most significant action involving the civil service. "There is just no comparison between the strength of unions before and after that . . . not just in the public sector but in the private sector, too," Devine said.
Arthur B. Shostak, a retired Drexel University professor who wrote a book about the strike and briefly worked for PATCO, argues that breaking the strike with a mass firing should not be regarded as a Reagan victory.
PATCO, which had endorsed Reagan's candidacy, was replaced by another union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which wields considerable power today in the Federal Aviation Administration, Shostak said.
Although Reagan's action stopped talk by federal unions of staging strikes and other work actions, it drove union members into the Democratic Party and insulted the civil service, he said.
Reagan took "the most talented people in the civil service and put them on the trash heap. They were blacklisted from employment in the civil service," Shostak said.
Hindsight is everything, and Reagan's approach should not have been surprising. In his November 1979 speech announcing his presidential candidacy, Reagan told a New York crowd:
"We must put an end to the arrogance of a federal establishment which accepts no blame for our condition. . . . I will not accept the supposed 'wisdom' which has it that the federal bureaucracy has become so powerful that it can no longer be changed or controlled by any administration."
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