Unless you count the time the British Army built a bonfire using the White House as kindling, nothing has so excited Washingtonians as the tough, retroacive hiring freeze President Reagan slapped on the federal bureaucracy.
He has been sued by a federal workers union on behalf of uncounted persons whose job offers were withdrawn in the wake of the no-hire edict. Local newspapers and radio-television news shows have assigned top people to cover the freeze, and uncover horror stories (and there are some) of the freeze: people who sold homes and moved here expecting government jobs, that sort of thing.
Many here think back-dating of the freeze is illegal, dumb, immoral, whatever. That is understandable, from our viewpoint. Of the 2.8 million souls who work for Uncle Sam worldwide, more than 362,000 of them live and work within a 30-minute commute of downtown Washington. The federal payroll here is $800 million a month. Those who don't work for the government supply services to it, or to the people who do work for it. There are 60,000 military personnel here and 100,000 former federal workers in retirement. All of them -- of us -- sneeze when the government gets a cold.
It makes sense that a federal freeze chills our marrow within the Capital Beltway. Even people who already have government jobs get nervous. And as secretaries and stenos leave government, some VIPs must actually answer phones or brew the coffee. This takes them away from more cosmic duties.A lengthy freeze can hurt the economy. Most of the people who call plumbers, buy television sets, supply paper clips or prepare pizza here are, one way or another, federally funded.
It makes sense, here, to think of a federal hiring freeze as sinister. But sometimes new ideas creep in. Washington is sometimes visited by persons from other lands, like Topeka and Eureka, Bangor and Hurricane, Utah. Some of us sometimes get to the provinces -- the great land mass south of Arlington and west of Bethesda -- where people think and talk funny.
If beyond-the-beltway reports are to be believed, Reagan's hiring freeze, which is as welcome as the Black Death here, is -- brace yourself -- going over big elsewhere. While we curse Reagan, or Ed Meese or Dave Stockman for the freeze and for backdating it to Nov. 5, there are many Americans who wish it had been made retroactive to 1948. Or before.
What is considered good here is often (indeed almost always) viewed as bad in the real world. Reality in our couple of hundred square miles of federal turf is fantasy most other places. Up here is down most other places. fLeft here is right there.
A lot of people think the government -- particularly the 12.5 percent of the workforce here -- is overpaid, underworked and grossly overstaffed. The $23,000 average federal salary here is, well, average. Most places that is a lot of money. And for doing government work, some think it is too much.
This is not an attack on the bureaucracy. I love the bureaucracy. My Trevi Fountain is the Reflecting Pool! I pray for a quick thaw, and hope the freeze will die under it own weight. Or spawn a new bureaucracy to police freezes.
Still, it is unreal to believe the freeze will lead to the impeachment of Ronald Reagan. The freeze is popular most places. Call your out-of-town uncle if you doubt it. Nobody will howl until some vital federal service they demand is a victim of the freeze.
If you doubt the popularity of the freeze, read this editorial from the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal. It praises the freeze and Reagan's prompt action to get government off peoples' backs: "Both the size and pervasiveness of our federal government has completely outstripped even the wildest dreams of our founding fathers. . . . It is most refreshing that one of Reagan's first acts was to begin bringing this Medusa under control. The executive order is all the more significant because of its thoroughness. The all-but-solid freeze affects 2.2 million federal employes who now cannot be replaced except in 'rare and unusual circumstances' -- circumstances which must be evaluated and certified by David Stockman, Reagan's budget chief.
"This is a good first step. We hopeit will be followed by many other fulfilled promises to restore confidence in the American economy -- both at home and abroad." The point is that the economy in Marietta, and lots of other places, doesn't bear much resemblence to our version here of the economy.