A century ago, a crazed office-seeker's assassination of President Garfield provoked a recalcitrant Congress into legislating merit -- and replacing party affiliation -- as the guiding management principle for a new, career civil service. On Jan. 16, 1983, our federal bureaucracy will mark its 100th birthday.
Today, budget dificits seem beyond government's self-control. I fear that there won't be much left in the Treasury for the party next winter.
As a civil servant, I know I should be content just to be still employed by a patient electorate. At the risk of pressing my luck, however, I want to float a few gift ideas for the career service centennial:
1. Restore congressional patronage. George Washington was right when he said that "the successful administration of the general government is an object of almost infinite consequence to the present and future happiness of the citizens of the United States." Open, competitive examinations for federal jobs contribute toward the achievement of that goal. An inadvertent consequence of less patronage, though, is less interest by Capitol Hill in administrative matters. With only a few notable exceptions, Congress ignores the admittedly soporific -- yet "infinitely consequential" -- issue of how to manage 2 million civilian federal workers.
If it takes a couple of thousand patronage slots to capture and hold the attention of the legislative branch, then I would gladly pay the price at merit's expense. The problems of the civil service are critical, and Congress' inattention to them contributes in no small way to our growing economic misfortune.
2. Pay off victorious campaign workers with cash, not jobs. We reward the major parties already with our voluntary check-off on the income tax form. Instead of just covering the campaign, why not subsidize the mainstreaming of the president-elect's supporters back into normal society? By making room for more qualified appointees at the ship of state's helm, we might even avoid the shoals of deficit spending.
For those campaign workers who want a little more than a bonus check from the Treasury, the Bureau of the Mint could coin a medal. Or Madison Avenue, the pollsters, and the television networks could set aside blocks of jobs every four years as a public service. Presidents might then be more free to consider merit and competence as the chief criteria in filling governmental policy jobs. If they did not, we could use the slots for the new congressional referrals.
3. Remember Thomas Carlyle? The argument begins before I even get to taste my salad. My brother, a carpenter from Cornish, N.H., makes his usual comment about waste and mismanagement in the federal bureaucracy. By the time I've reached the roast turkey, the decibel level has gone up a few notches with his jibe about overpaid, underworked paper-pushers. The whole country is going down the tubes when I finally reach dessert, and my appetite has disappeared.
I propose a simple solution to a problem that I suspect plagues many of my fellow civil servants: we erect a sign on the District's Theodore Roosevelt Bridge (I choose Teddy because of his strong support for merit principles as one of the first civil service commissioners). The sign simply quotes Thomas Carlyle:
"In the long run every government is the exact symbol of its people, with their wisdom and unwisdom." For those visiting relatives outside of Washington, we reproduce picture postcards, which can be passed across the table as one reaches for the butter.
American public administration, like American constitutional government, never seems to measure up to its own ideals. It is only when alternatives are considered that its true value and record of achievement come into perspective. After 100 years -- and incalculable contributions to this nation's success in two world wars and its recovery from the brink of financial ruin -- the civil service has earned its birthday cake.