Max Stier is president and chief executive of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
Congress should be tutored on a fundamental principle taught to doctors: First, do no harm.
Lawmakers’ inability to pass a timely funding bill has caused a federal government shutdown, denying Americans important services and damaging the livelihoods of 2 million federal workers.
This political breakdown follows the epic budget battles that resulted in “sequestration” — the arbitrary, across-the-board cuts that were meant to be so draconian that Congress would surely act before they could take effect. These budget reductions are saving money but at a high cost. At the Internal Revenue Service, the enforcement division reduced its workforce 14 percent because of budget cuts, even before sequestration went into effect. Great news, you say? Well, the amount of revenue that division collects dropped by $7.4 billion, or 13 percent, in 2012 compared with 2010.
FBI Director James Comey reports that cuts have been so drastic that the bureau is opening fewer intelligence investigations and is not hiring agents — and that agents don’t have enough money to put gas in their cars. FBI agents are saying they are concerned about their ability to protect us.
And military leaders are openly questioning whether U.S. forces can meet the requirements of our strategic objectives and warning about U.S. readiness. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, testified at a recent congressional hearing: “Throughout our history, we have drawn down military forces at the close of every war. This time, however, we are drawing down our Army before the war is over and at a time when there is grave uncertainty in the international security environment.”
So what are we accomplishing? Instead of focusing on serving the people, officials have spent thousands of hours trying to figure out how to achieve their missions, provide essential functions and meet citizens’ needs with less money and staff .
What are we losing? In addition to the lost revenue at the IRS and the FBI’s reduced capacity to keep Americans safe, Congress just closed the door on behind-the-scenes government workers who were combating a range of issues.
It may be easy to discount or even scapegoat a faceless bureaucracy that for years has been cast as bloated and ineffective. The federal workforce doesn’t have many champions these days, but we would do well as a nation to reflect on its accomplishments and imagine a world without these workers.
Tara Palmore and Julie Segre of the National Institutes of Health, for example, are working to prevent the hospital-acquired infections that too often claim lives. Kevin Geiss found innovative energy conservation solutions for the Air Force that saved taxpayers more than $1 billion last year. John MacKinnon and his team at the Department of Homeland Security have rescued more than 160 children from child pornographers and human traffickers; Daniel Madrzykowski of the National Institute of Standards and Technology studies fires so that he can teach firefighters techniques that will help save their lives. Hamid Jafari of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention led the global effort to eradicate polio in India and is working to eradicate the disease from the handful of nations where it endures.
Our aviation system and the food and water we consume are safe, thanks to the work of federal employees. Federal workers make sacrifices to ensure our national security.
The critical work of government — and its impact on all — is getting lost amid the political fighting and gridlock. Congress seems to have lost sight of the fact that an independent, ethical civil service is the tool for addressing our common, national problems.
Public servants choose their careers because they want to make a difference. But these men and women are being treated like political pawns — and we are losing them. Attrition in fiscal 2012 has increased 35 percent since fiscal 2009, a loss of more than 455,000 full-time employees in four years.
Congress is harming the federal workforce. People are being asked to do their jobs without appropriate resources. They are being furloughed. Pay freezes have been in effect for three years. Morale is plummeting. Would anyone run a business this way? Would you encourage your children to devote their careers to public service?
We will never get what we want out of our government if all we do is tear it down. Democrats and Republicans are fighting like King Kong vs. Godzilla — and we are the city getting destroyed around them.
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