For a candidate on the stump or for the propagandists putting over the Jarvis amendment in California, lambasting the government and the tax-eaters and the bureaucrats takes hardly more than wind power. Jimmy Carter discovered that in the campaign that led to the presidency.
Now he is trying to reform the elephantine federal government with its 2 million or more employees. Making over the Civil Service Commission dictionary-size roster of rules and regulations is like tinkering with a perpetual-motion machine. It is so encrusted with the barnacles of the past alongside new commands to give women and minorities a break that it defies reform.
The president might better have considered a report that was drawn up by a group of industrial and business leaders for the Committee for Economic Development. CED is a private organization with an enlightened view of both business and government.
The report gets right down to the nitty-gritty, calling for abolishing the Civil Service Commission and setting up a new office of personnel management under the president. The commission's adjudicatory and appellate powers should be transferred to a new federal service board.
The CED report faces up to one of the obstacles in the way of Carter's proposed civil-service reform. That is a preference in hiring for war veterans.
"Veterans preference undoubtedly brought many able people into government," the report says. "Nevertheless, these sweeping and rigid priorities concerning appointments, staff reductions and other special rights now operate as a seriously persistent impediment to adaptive and effective management."
On the positive side, CED recommends creating a federal career executive service. A senior executive service corps would ensure reasonable security and fair compensation for talented men and women at executive levels.
The same recommendation comes in a scholarly book from Brookings Institution, "A Government of Strangers," by Hugh Heclo. Reviewing many of the handicaps under the present rigid system, the author proposes a federal service fluid enough to serve all the elements of a complex government:
"This group of officials, whom I call federal executive officers, would not acquire a rank, as officials do now, by virtue of a particular job classification. Instead, individuals would be appointed to a new federal service on the basis of their nonpartisan qualifications for high-level government work and would carry a rank and salary dependent on their individual record of performance (as in the U.S. military and foreign service)."
They would be chosen initially by a through screening process under a new civil-service agency in the office of the president. Evaluation boards composed of distinguished private and public executives would make the final selections, which would be open to public scrutiny.
There are dangers under the proposed federal service, Heclo notes. Presidents or their personal aides could find it easier to politicize a career civil service attached to the presidency. But the same thing could occur under the present system, as in the decline and fall of the Nixon administration.
While there is no perfect answer, tinkering will not be enough. Too many abuses have come to light. Radical reform is essential, and one of those reforms may be abolishing the Civil Service Commission.
Those who denounce government are more often than not first to call for government services. That is the paradox of the present mood that vilifies taxes while at the same time expecting government to deliver.
Carter won in 1976 because he seemed to offer a simple solution, above and beyond Washington, for the nation's ills. Now against the background of promises, promises, he is called upon to resolve those ills.