Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, a leading adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, is urging the candidate to take on a thorny issue if he’s elected: Overhaul the civil service so it’s easier to fire bad apples.
The idea goes to the heart of Republican frustration with what some derisively refer to as federal workers’ lifetime tenure. Republican proposals in Congress to cut benefits and punish wrongdoing have picked up steam in recent years following scandals over veterans’ care, lavish conference spending and IRS scrutiny of tax-exempt groups.
But a major push to make changes to how the federal workforce is managed would run into fierce political opposition in Washington.
Democrats are generally allies of the public employee unions that represent the 2 million civil servants, and they resist GOP proposals to chip away at their pensions and job protections.
Nonetheless, Gingrich is urging Trump to make the performance of the federal workforce a priority, making a case for why it should be easier to fire poor performers and those with records of misconduct. Under current law, it’s difficult to do.
Gingrich spoke with The Washington Post Tuesday afternoon about why he’s telling Trump that better management of federal workers is so important. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q. Why should federal employees be on the radar of a President Trump so quickly?
A. You have a story in USA Today today [about new leadership] at VA. You have Bob McDonald, the VA secretary, who was a pretty good CEO, but he’s now so absorbed by the [federal] bureaucracy that he accepts things he never would have accepted when he ran Procter & Gamble. He suggested that 90 percent of VA medical centers have new leadership. Actually there are eight people hired from outside the agency, out of 140 medical center directors. So that’s not quite 6 percent. The rest have just been moved around.
Q. So you’re saying that some VA managers who did not do their jobs should have been fired but weren’t? And that’s the problem in government?
A. That’s a large part of what’s wrong. If you read President Obama’s comments when he appointed [former VA secretary Eric] Shinseki, the president said VA is a broken agency and we have to fix it. Now years later you come down to an agency filled with failure to achieve things. One out of three suicide prevention lines goes over to voice mail. That’s criminal behavior. And yet until were prepared to reform the civil service model — and the Pendleton Act [which established the civil service] passed 133 years ago — you have no ability to fire people who are really bad.
Q. Okay, so why is it so hard to fire bad apples in government?
A. Attitudinally, you have to ask that question. Why? In a private-sector company if you have someone who fudged 3,000 appointments for veterans so the hospital would look like it worked better, you say, who was accountable? Who got fired? Who went to jail? Dumping 3,000 names ought to be illegal.
The quagmire is so bad. It’s a very simple watershed: Should the president, through his appointees, have the power to fire people who are corrupt? We think you’ve done bad things, and now you pay the penalty. The threshold question is: How sick does the system have to get for you to admit it has to be reformed?
Q. What has Trump’s reaction been when you press him to make this issue a priority?
A. He’s talking about it a little bit. I think it’s actually a very good place to draw a contrast with Hillary. I would not be at all surprised to see [Trump make] a speech on reforming the whole civil service system.
Q. Would change like this to how government is managed be possible in Washington? Where would the fault lines be?
A. So there are two groups in Washington on this issue who are initially opposed. First, you have the hard-line federal employee unions. They’re like the teachers union in New York. There are parallels. They are the group that, no matter how sick it is, they have a vested interest in the old order.
Then there are people who know better and are embarrassed, but they think the fight will be so big they can’t bring themselves to take it on. Chairman [Jeff] Miller (R-Fla.) in the House, he, more than the Senate leaders, has been much more willing to take on the unions and offer real reform on veterans issues. The Democrats start from a premise of: We can’t touch any of this.
We had the first big fundraiser for Scott Walker [the GOP governor who moved to limit collective bargaining for public employees] in Wisconsin. The minute they passed reforms, there were literally death threats again him and his wife. If Trump were to win, you would have this. This will not be a problem for Hillary, as she will take care of the unions.
Q. So the Democrats are satisfied with the status quo? Do they get a lot of money from federal unions?
A. It’s money, but it’s also numbers. If you’re a member of Congress from the Washington suburbs, guess who you listen to?
Q. So what happened with these issues when you were House speaker in the 1990s?
A. We passed administrative reform acts, but at the time, frankly, of all the things we were trying to do, we didn’t pivot on reforming the civil service. It was only after I was out of office advising people in the (George W.) Bush administration that I began to realize if you don’t fix this problem, nothing in government is going to work.
Q. Why is it so important that, to use your word, bad employees are forced out?
A. As the system continues to decay, if you have a system which defends incompetence with bad people, then good people will leave. The system gets sicker and sicker. Right after World War II, the U.S. government was an amazing system.
Q. Would government service improve if incompetent workers or those who really messed up had to go?
A. Everyone benefits. You can actually do something. A person who actually got the VA fixed could point to veterans getting better health care. Or you reform NASA so it’s focused on actually getting into space, and you would have the advantage of a lot more achievements in space. At DOD [the Defense Department] you would cut through all of the planning and procurement baloney that’s just killing us.
Q. So now you’re saying that government moves slowly. What’s the connection with poor performers?
A. They’re mutually tied together. They’re two parallel questions. If you have too much bureaucracy, it has to justify itself. All the bureaucrats with nothing to do slow things down so they have nothing to do. Eisenhower’s national security council was made up of 24 people, I think. Now it’s about 500. Do we really think the national strategic decisions made by the Eisenhower administration were less important than those made today?