Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Federal Workers: Performance, Pay, and Firing

Americans are concerned about the performance of the federal bureaucracy. Many people think that federal workers are overpaid and underworked. Some recent news stories provide fresh input to the debate.

A story yesterday at GovExec.com regards pay and performance. The federal pay structure is less efficient than private pay structures because it is generally based on seniority, not job performance. But GovExec.com finds that attempts to introduce federal performance pay have not worked very well either:

Most federal agencies are not making meaningful distinctions in performance ratings and bonuses for senior executives, according to a new watchdog report. About 85 percent of career senior executives received “outstanding” or “exceeds fully successful” ratings in their performance reviews between fiscal years 2010 and 2013, at the same time that agencies have made smaller distinctions in the amount of individual bonuses, the Government Accountability Office found. This has created a system where nearly everyone is considered outstanding…

The level of federal pay is the focus of another recent story. GovExec.com reports on the large number of workers who enjoy high pay:

More than 16,900 federal employees took home in excess of $200,000 in base salary in 2014, according to a partial database of federal salary data.

The report is based on data from FedSmith.com, which is an excellent source of federal workforce information. Fedsmith’s database can list employees and their salaries by agency. For example, there are 159 people at the Small Business Administration who made more than $150,000 in wages in 2014. That’s 159 too many in my view, as the agency should be closed down.

Another recent article regards federal firing. The Federal Times confirms the extraordinarily low firing rate in the federal government compared to the private sector:

Even as lawmakers press for greater accountability within government, agencies have fired fewer employees than at any time in the last 10 years, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management.

Agencies fired 9,537 federal employees for discipline or performance issues in fiscal 2014, down from 9,634 in 2013 and down from a high of 11,770 in fiscal 2010, according to the data. The firing rate held at 0.46 percent of the workforce in both fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2014 — the lowest rate in 10 years.

The private sector fires nearly six times as many employees — about 3.2 percent — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and whether the government fires too few people or just not the right people is the subject of continued debate.

For more on the federal workforce, see here.

DHS Shutdown

Policymakers are battling over a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The disagreement over the bill involves the funding of President Obama’s recent immigration actions.

If a DHS funding bill is not approved, the department will partially shut down. The administration has been highlighting the negative effects of that possibility, but the battle illustrates how the government has grown far too large. Federal shutdowns may cause disruption, but that is because the government has extended its tentacles into activities that should be left to state and local governments and the private sector.

To the extent possible, we should move the most important activities in society out of Washington because the federal government has become such a screwed-up institution. Air traffic control, for example, is too crucial to allow it to get caught in D.C. budget squabbles, as it did in 2013. Air traffic control should be privatized.

Bipartisan Baloney About Top 1 Percent Income Gains

In the State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama said, “those at the top have never done better… Inequality has deepened.”  The following day, Fox News anchor Brett Baier said, “According to the work of Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the post-recession years of 2009-2012, top earners snagged a greater share of total income growth than during the boom years of 2002-2007. In other words, income inequality has become more pronounced since the Bush administration, not less.” 

Senator Bernie Sanders agrees that “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”  And Senator Ted Cruz likewise confirmed that, “The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928.” 

When any statistic is so politically useful and wildly popular among left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans you can be pretty sure it’s baloney.  Bipartisan baloney.

In November 2013, I wrote that, “Because reported capital gains and bonuses were…shifted forward from 2013 to 2012 [to avoid higher tax rates], we can expect a sizable drop in the top 1 percent’s reported income when the 2013 estimates come out a year from now. The befuddled media will doubtless figure out some way to depict that drop as an increase.” As predicted, the New York Times took one look at a 14.9% drop in top 1% incomes and concluded that “The Gains from the Recovery are Still Limited to the Top One Percent” That involved slicing the same old baloney very badly.

How Not to Spin a Big Drop in Top 1% Incomes

Pre-1944 method of estimating top 1% shares

When Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez release their annual estimates of top 1 percent incomes, you can count on The New York Times to put it in a front page headline with additional hype on the editorial page.  This time, however, the news was that the top 1 percent had suffered a 14.9 percent decline in real income in 2013 if capital gains are included, as they always had been until now.  

The New York Times heroic spin was “The Gains From the Economic Recovery Are Still Limited to the Top One Percent.”  The author, Justin Wolfers of the Peterson Institute wrote, “Emmanuel Saez … has just released preliminary estimates for 2013. The share of total income (excluding capital gains) going to the top 1 percent remains above one ­sixth, at 17.5 percent. By this measure, the concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago.”

I will have more to say about this in another blog post.  For now, I just want to call attention to the artistic way in which the subject was changed.  Since 2008, Saez has been comparing changes in top incomes (for which he has preliminary IRS data) to incomes of the bottom 90 percent (for which IRS data are singularly inappropriate).   He always included realized capital gains because that makes the top 1 percent share both larger and more cyclical.

Failing to Clean Up the VA

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a long history of mismanagement. Last year, the public became aware of a wait-time scandal at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Veterans were forced to wait months for appointments, even as the hospital was reporting no delays in service and allowing its management to receive performance bonuses. Over 1,700 veterans were not placed on the official wait lists to hide the length of actual waits. The VA Inspector General suggested that the Phoenix VA was not the only center to modify its wait lists in this fashion.

In response to the crisis, Congress passed a  law that allowed veterans who were waiting for treatment to access non-VA providers. At the time, I cautioned about the risk of a possible large, unfunded entitlement program being created. Now it seems that there are other issues with the way that the VA is implementing the expanded program. Veterans continue to be shut out of service and providers are uncertain how to utilize the benefits.

The Washington Post reports:

The card gives veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the chance to see a private doctor.

But instead, some veterans say that when they attempted to use their card, the VA told them they had to live more than 40 “miles in a straight line, or as the crow flies,” from their VA rather than Google maps miles, which makes the card harder to use. Several VA doctors e-mailed The Washington Post saying they themselves don’t understand how to use the program

Another reader wrote in saying that her stepfather, Charles Schuster, who died in 2009, recently received a card in the mail, a symbol of an agency still seemingly in disarray. “Gave me a good laugh,” she wrote.

So far, 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private care with their cards, the VA said last week. It’s a fraction of the 9 million veterans who depend on the delay-plagued VA health-care system, the largest network of health centers and hospitals in the country.

“As far as I can tell, the choice card has created more confusion and aggravation than improving access to clinical care, though it did gain political points,” said one VA primary care doctor, who says he’s on the front lines of doing intakes. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because VA employees are not allowed to speak to the media without permission. But he said he and other doctors “are confused by the choice card system and don’t understand how to implement it.”

The article  documents other instances of veterans being unable to utilize their choice cards.

The VA hospital system is a mess, showing the downsides of socialized health care. During last year’s scandal, Congress simply put a bandage on the problem by allowing some veterans to use outside providers. Congress should revisit the issue and institute more fundamental reforms to the Veterans Health Administration.

Congress’s Blank-Check Bills

Luke Rosiak at the Washington Examiner filed a report late last week on a little recognized, but important congressional practice: proposing open-ended spending. In the last Congress, fully 700 bills proposed spending without limits. That’s a lot.

A quick primer: congressional spending is a two-step process. First, there must be an authorization of appropriations. Then Congress appropriates funds, providing actual authority for executive branch agencies to spend.

The committees in Congress are divided by type between authorizing committees and appropriations committees. Authorizers are supposed to do the bulk of the oversight and authorize spending at amounts they determine. Appropriators would then dole out funds specifically. But over the years, the division of labor has shifted and power has collected in the appropriations committees, whose members are often referred to as “cardinals” … like “College of Cardinals.”

Backward incentives explain this. Members of Congress who authorize spending naturally appear to be pro-spending, which has political costs. The costs are at their worst when a specific amount is involved. “Senator So-and-So wants to spend $50 million on what?!” So many authorizing committees shirk their duties by eschewing reauthorization of the agencies in their jurisdiction. And sometimes the trick is authorizing spending of “such sums as may be necessary,” which doesn’t provide as good an angle for political attack.

representatives who wrote the most blank checksThat would make appropriators the only drag on spending, but it doesn’t because of a second perversion in politics. Appropriators get good enough at gathering the political emoluments of spending that they overcome the negatives and become an institutional pro-spending bloc. As Mike Franc of the Heritage Foundation put it in 2011, “appropriators, their professional staff, and legions of lobbyists serve as a mutually reinforcing triad bent on increasing spending today, tomorrow, and forevermore.”

Rosiak notes that the House Republican leadership cautioned against open-ended spending proposals at the beginning of the 113th Congress. Consequently, Republican blank-check bills are more rare. The top open-ended spenders are all Democrats, and they’re all on the party’s left wing.

So what’s to be done?

In 2010, the Senate joined the House in banning earmarks. This came after a few short years of applied transparency in the earmark area, including a contest to gather earmark data conducted by yours truly on WashingtonWatch.com. A group called Taxpayers Against Earmarks (now Ending Spending) applied some direct pressure. And a host of other groups were involved, of course.

The practice of proposing open-ended spending could similarly be curtailed with public oversight and pressure.

So who should do that work?

We’ve already started. Rosiak’s story was produced using the Cato Institute’s Deepbills data.

Governors Love Federal Funding

ObamaCare gives states the option to expand Medicaid to cover all individuals below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is approximately $33,500 a year for a family of four. To encourage states to expand, the federal government agreed to fund 100 percent of expenditures for the newly-eligible participants until 2016, and then slowly decrease the match to 90 percent in 2020 and into the future.

Democratic and Republican governors alike are showing their penchant for “free” federal dollars by supporting expanded Medicaid roles in their state. Republicans governors—who often say they dislike Obamacare—are in many cases pushing their legislatures to expand Medicaid to take advantage of this windfall.

GOP Governor Bill Haslam in Tennessee announced that he would support Medicaid expansion. His administration promoted the plan by saying, “Insure Tennessee will leverage the enhanced federal funding which will pay for between 90 and 100 percent of the cost and in doing so will bring federal tax dollars Tennesseans are already paying back to the state.”

To help minimize the state’s contribution and maximize federal funding, Haslam decided to expand the state’s health provider tax. Under a provider tax, a state agrees to increase Medicaid reimbursements to the providers paying the tax, such as hospitals. The higher reimbursement level draws a higher federal contribution. So state politicians and hospitals win, but federal taxpayers lose.  

In this case, luckily, Tennessee’s legislature denied Haslam’s  expansion attempts.