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January 28, 2005

The Return of the Spoils System

Back in the 19th century, work for the federal government was part of a partisan spoils system, where supporters of a President were rewarded and opponents punished. Since the Civil Service Act of 1883, legislation has worked to insulate federal employees from pressure to toe the partisan line of the President's party.

Well, that's now ending, starting with the "Homeland Security" department where new rules will allow managers to punish the 110,000 Homland Security employees and even fire employees who act independently.

The administration assures the public that these "reforms" eliminating collective bargaining rights and ending civil service protections are just to improve performance, or as they describe the new rules:

  • Employees rated less than fully successful do not receive pay increases
  • Individual expectations aligned with organizational goals
  • System results in improved organizational accountability
  • Non negotiable management rights expanded to assure ability to act
  • Bargaining on procedures prohibited, but management required to confer
  • Homeland Security Labor Relations Board (HSLRB) established to ensure mission focus, provide one-stop dispute resolution
  • Mitigation permitted only when penalty is wholly without justification
  • Just look at those last two items. "One-stop" dispute resolution means that employees complaining about abuses in the Homeland Security Department will appear before a panel created and controlled by the head of the...Homeland Security Department. Unlike other federal employee labor boards, whose members must be confirmed by the US Senate, the Homeland Security boards will just be political appointees with no independent review by anyone outside the administration.

    And no appeals will apparently be allowed unless the employee can prove that there is no conceivable basis for the adverse action against the employee. As long as the Department can tell a plausible story for why they retaliated against an employee, he or she is toast.

    But, you ask, would this administration so abuse the law to force employees to toe the administration's propaganda line?

    This is an administration whose political employees have broken the law distributing fake propaganda to the news on the taxpayers dime and paid off columnists to promote administration policy. Now, with these new rules, employees of the Homeland Security department will have to join the administration's propaganda campaign or see their pay slashed and even lose their job.

    A coalition of federal unions have filed a lawsuit against the administration challenging the new rules, arguing:

    "Without true due process, managers will have free rein to retaliate against employees who challenge management decisions. The narrowed scope of bargaining in the new regulations allows management to implement transfers and shift changes with impunity. To see how this could work, one need only look at the Office of Special Counsel, where career employees who spoke out against management decisions suddenly find themselves transferred to offices thousands of miles away from their homes. Who now will be held accountable if the DHS fails its mission?"
    As I noted back in 2002 when the new Homeland Security law was being debated, these changes endanger the public, as was shown in review of retaliation against whistleblowers in the FBI, which has long lacked many of the civil service protections of the rest of the federal government:
    Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who revealed the incompetence of the agency leading up to 911, testified before Congress and identified the "risk aversion" by agents and "micromanagement" by top level supervisors as a key source of the problem. Agents are so afraid of retaliation that they are unwilling to "rock the boat...We have a culture in the FBI that there's a certain pecking order."

    The non-union FBI has been wracked by scandals of whistleblowers trying to expose incompetence in their agency, only to suffer harassment to keep quiet. In the mid-90s, chronic problems in FBI crime labs were highlighted by whistleblower Frederic Whitehurst, a scientist-agent, who along with colleagues were suspended for their service to the country. Despite praise by Senators for his courage, Whitehurst suffered demotions, internal investigations, and forced psychological treatments. Similarly, when a wiretap translator in D.C. raised suspicions about a coworker's connections to a suspicious group under surveillance, despite the verification of much of her story, the FBI fired her for publicly raising her concerns.

    As I argued at the time, "why would we create a whole Department with the same culture of arbitrary retaliation and risk aversion as the FBI?"

    But the answer of course is that what's bad for the nation's security is very good for serving the partisan propaganda goals of the Bush administration.

    Update: Kevin Drum and Liberal Oasis

    Posted by Nathan at January 28, 2005 05:55 AM