JIMMY CARTER did one of the things he does best last week. He presented the nation with an ambitious plan for revising, reforming and, some might even say, reawakening that complex of roughly 2-million federal workers known as the Civil Service. It is, on the whole, an excellent plan.
We are not being sardonic, or at least not wholly sardonic, when we say that stirring up a flurry of paper, providing Congress and the public with both thorough and well-reasoned studies of the nation's principal problems and proposed solutions to them, is one of the things Mr. Carter does best. There is great value to be had in the sustained and systematic thinking of the experts on these problems -- and certainly Civil Service Commissioner Alan K. Campbell, who presided over the development of the Civil Service reform proposal, is the best in the business. The trouble, of course, is that drawing up a policy or a reform is not the same thing as seeing it into law -- as Mr. Carter better than anyone now knows. In fact, it's not even necessarily the same thing as drawing up a program that could be a useful law; some of these blueprints are simply beyond political construction.
Is the Civil Service reform among the latter? We hope it is not, and we think it need not necessarily be. But it would be naive to suppose the president is not going to encounter fierce resistance. That is mainly because he has taken on the tough one in seeking to limit the extravagant preferential treatment now given military veterans under the system, treatment that bears in only the most tangential and theoretical way on any special contribution they have made. The president proposes, instead, as he put it: "to reduce the preferential advantage given to nondisabled veterans to a 10-year period, and to end this preference altogether for the senior military officers who retire with pension benefits after a full military career." At the same time, he would strengthen provisions helping the disabled vets and "those who served during and since Vietnam." This is as it should be, but it has already created a clangorous response from various veterans and military groups, which along with certain labor unions and some in the Civil Service are likely to create fierce opposition to enactment of the reform.
These are groups that have a tremendous impact on Congress, so it seems fairly obvious that if Mr. Carter is to get his proposal enacted, he will have to work and lobby hard in its behalf. We do not think this should be too difficult, because he has strong arguments on his side. And we would guess he has some pretty powerful political symbolism running with him, too. Revitalization of the federal bureaucracy is a potent concern of the voters, sometimes hostilely expressed, but always with an edge of authentic, even intense, feeling. People want the government to function more efficiently and wisely, and that is precisely what the Carter reforms would help it to do. For these amount to little more than introducing tried and reasonable principles of good management into the federal enterprise. Government workers would be punished, rewarded, assigned and generally dealth with in ways that invited good work and afforded the necessary protections from abuse.
Mr. Carter is, in effect, seeking to reform a nearly century-old way of doing things -- itself, originally a reform -- and he has a very good case for what he intends. Now comes what he has already discovered to be the hard part: making the wisdom and merit of his "paper" policy plausible and overwhelmingly attractive to the various people and groups who are the only ones who can make it into law.