Commentary

Happy Bureaucrat Week!

I hope everyone is enjoying Public Service Recognition Week. As you may know, the House of Representatives and Senate passed identical resolutions to honor and commend federal, state, and local government workers this week.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with saluting the civil servants who work in Washington and across the country. And if Congress is going to waste its time designating things like Sibling Connections Day, National Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day, and Drive Safer Sunday, what’s the harm in passing a resolution commending public service?

Nothing I suppose, except that it reveals Congress’s skewed view of the importance of bureaucrats, and by extension, the government. Take a look at some of the lines in the House and Senate resolutions that made Public Service Recognition Week a possibility:

Federal, State, and local governments are responsive, innovative, and effective because of the outstanding work of public servants.

But just how effective is the government? According to the Office of Management and Budget, just 17 percent of federal programs are “effective” while 25 percent are deemed “not performing.”

The federal government wastes billions (trillions?) of dollars each year thanks to mismanagement, fraud, and abuse. As Chris Edwards notes in Downsizing the Federal Government, “erroneous and fraudulent payments to Medicare cost $20 billion annually,” “overpayments in federal rental housing subsidies cost $2 billion a year,” and a single inside deal at the Pentagon “would have wasted up to $2.5 billion of taxpayer money.”

Which invites scrutiny of another provision:

Public servants alert Congress and the public to government waste, fraud, abuse.

I too applaud the whistleblowers who point out misdeeds and fraudulent practices within the government. But the reason we need whistleblowers in the first place is because of the transgressions of other government employees. Essentially, this provision thanks a few honorable civil servants for helping to curb the waste and abuses of other civil servants. If the government truly ran like a well-oiled machine, as these resolutions suggest, then whistleblowers would be altogether unnecessary.

More from the resolution:

The Senate/House of Representatives salutes their unyielding dedication and spirit for public service.

This suggests that civil servants are inspired to do their jobs for the greater good or to make a meaningful contribution to society. Senator Daniel Akaka made a similar claim in a recent op-ed when he asserted that “public servants have a strong desire to serve because they want to make a difference and contribute to the success of our government.”

In some cases, that’s no doubt true, but I would guess that many work for federal government because the pay is pretty good and the job security excellent. As Chris Edwards noted in a paper last year, “Federal wages and benefits have been rising quickly, and by 2004 the average compensation of federal workers was almost twice the average in the private sector.”

“Perhaps the most important benefit of federal work is the extreme job security,” Edwards argues. “The rate of ‘involuntary separations’ (layoffs and firings) in the federal workforce is one-quarter the rate in the private sector.”

Also from the resolutions:

Public servants… keep the Nation’s economy stable.

I can only guess that this assertion is made in reference to the relative lack of involuntary separations in the federal workforce. That is to say, because the government does not lay off employees during a recession, those areas with high concentrations of government workers are less affected by economic downturns. Of course, this ignores the fact that the excessive size of the government workforce – and government generally – is a tremendous economic drag that restricts growth and limits job opportunities. Stability is nice, but not nearly as appealing as the higher standard of living that comes from dynamic economic growth.

Naturally, these resolutions breezed through the House and Senate, though I should note that they are non-binding and do not authorize or appropriate any taxpayer funds. Still, the resolutions clearly reflect Congress’s inflated sense of government’s contribution to society.

And if the folks on Capitol Hill truly believe that the federal government is so worthy of praise, I suppose Americans should be pleased that they are wasting their time with meaningless resolutions instead of enlarging it by passing laws that could be far more damaging to our country.

Brandon Arnold is director of government affairs at the Cato Institute.