Reagan's complicated legacy for federal workforce

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 11:54 PM

This week marks the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth. When it comes to federal employee issues, he's probably most remembered as a big union-busting president.

In August 1981, just months after Reagan took office, air traffic controllers began an illegal strike. Reagan warned them to return to work or he would fire them. When most of them didn't, he kept his word and terminated about 11,000 strikers.

Two months later, the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.

Reagan's firm but controversial stance had lasting implications for the federal workforce and far beyond, even internationally.

Federal employees today certainly would not consider striking, which is illegal now just as it was when the air traffic controllers seemed to think they could get away with it.

The firings sent a chill through organized labor. In the decades before the controllers' action, there had been about 300 strikes each year. There was an average of 30 afterward, according to a National Public Radio story on the 25th anniversary of the strike. (There were factors other than Reagan's action that probably contributed to the drop.)

In foreign relations, Reagan's handling of the strike "convinced people in other capitals around the world, including the Soviet leaders, that they had a person of real substance that they were dealing with here," Edwin Meese, attorney general under Reagan, told CNN in 2001.

Busting the air traffic controllers union isn't Reagan's only legacy in the federal workplace. Creation of the Federal Employees Retirement System is another important one.

FERS was designed to be a portable and modern retirement program, in line with private-sector benefits, though certainly riskier for workers and retirees, according to Jacqueline Simon, public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees. It replaced the old Civil Service Retirement System, with its defined retirement benefit, which now covers a minority of the federal workforce.

Reagan set his federal workforce legacy in motion in his first hours as president. While still at the Capitol after being inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981, Reagan took his first official act as president: He ordered "a strict freeze on the hiring of Federal civilian employees to be applied across the board," except for exemptions in "rare and unusual circumstances."

In a presidential memorandum announcing the freeze, Reagan said that "the national budget is out of control." He added that "last July, during my campaign for the Presidency, I pledged that we would take this action as a first step towards controlling the growth and size of government and stopping the drain on the economy by the public sector."

"Imposing a freeze now can eventually lead to a significant reduction in the size of the Federal work force," he said.

It didn't work out quite that way. In fact, according to Office of Personnel Management data, the number of federal workers increased under Reagan. And although Reagan is the champion of today's small-government advocates, the federal workforce was larger under him than it is now.

"After just a few months in office, the 'rare exemption' to the hiring freeze became not so rare as the president's new appointees discovered that many of the federal positions that were being vacated in their agencies were actually mission-critical and needed to be filled," said John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service. (The nonprofit organization has a content sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

In fiscal 1982, which began before Reagan took office, there were 2,110,000 federal employees, according to OPM. In fiscal 1985, that number was 2,252,000, more than today.

For Palguta, who had been working on federal employee issues for 12 years with the Merit Systems Protection Board before Reagan took office, the increase does not suggest the president betrayed his principles. Instead, when it became clear what was needed to fulfill his inaugural call for "a strong and prosperous America," he was practical and increased federal staffing.

"Would his legacy still be as bright today if, instead, he had adhered to the prevailing ideology calling for a smaller federal workforce at all costs?" Palguta asked. "I think not."

Despite the increase in federal employment under Reagan, Robert Tobias, director of Public Sector Executive Education at American University and a former National Treasury Employees Union president, said Reagan's "lasting impact on the federal workforce was to successfully link his political goal of downsizing the federal government with the demonization of the workforce of the federal government."

It's clear Reagan's declaration that "government is the problem" has had lasting impact. Said Linda J. Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School: "Reagan's actions were deeply demoralizing to federal civil servants and left a legacy of distrust which has never completely faded."

(Links to Reagan's freeze memorandum and the OPM data are with this column at www.

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