The ‘Service’ Is Gone From Civil Service

Last Friday’s congressional hearing on outlandish bonuses at the VA is the latest proof that the nation needs to overhaul how federal workers in every department are paid and promoted. They’re on the gravy train, and taxpayers are being taken for a ride.


Back in1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act to replace patronage with a federal civil service where workers would be hired and paid based on merit. There is no MERIT anymore. Scramble the letters. What you have now is a TIMER system. Workers put in time, and get hefty salaries and bonuses, regardless of work quality, with virtually no risk of being fired.

Gina Farrissee, assistant secretary for human resources at the VA, told Congress on Friday that executive bonuses “are awarded only after a rigorous and diligent review.” Nonsense.

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The regional director overseeing the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs collected a $63,000 award in 2012, shortly after six vets treated there died needlessly from legionella, an infection traced directly to the poor maintenance of facilities.

The General Accountability Office investigated VAs nationwide and reported in July 2013 that doctors get bonuses irrespective of work quality. A radiologist cited for mistakes reading mammograms received a $8,216 bonus, even though a professional standards board deemed him unqualified to continue his current duties. A surgeon suspended for 14 days for abandoning a patient on the operating table and leaving the medical center with only unsupervised residents to complete the procedure still received an $11,189 annual bonus.

But it’s not just the VA. Every federal department has this putrid culture.

The IRS doles out bonuses to employees guilty of illegal drug use, unemployment benefits fraud or even tax evasion. A Treasury inspector general’s report released April 22 states that “with few exceptions, the IRS does not consider tax compliance or other misconduct when issuing performance awards or most other types of awards.”

Yet IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told Congress last week that a special independent prosecutor to investigate IRS targeting of conservative groups “would be a monumental waste of taxpayer funds.” That’s a novel concern at the IRS or any federal agency.

The Pendleton Act stipulated that federal employees would be hired and promoted based on merit. But merit no longer matters. Take the Environmental Protection Agency worker making $125,000 a year who spent many hours a day watching porn, including four hours on a website called “Sadism is Beautiful.” Yet he received performance awards. “How much pornography would it take for an EPA employee to lose their job?” asked Congressman Darrell Issa, R-California, during an Oversight Committee hearing in May.

The answer is that firing a federal worker is almost impossible, and making it stick, even less likely. Data from the Office of Personnel Management indicate that it is five times as hard to get fired from a federal job as from a private sector one. Incredibly, most federal departments have even laxer standards than Veterans Affairs. Jeffrey Neely, the General Services Administration employee pictured in a hot tub sipping wine on taxpayer money, retired with full benefits after the lavish 2010 Las Vegas boondoggle he planned was uncovered in the media. His co-worker Paul Prouty was fired but then reinstated with almost a year of back pay after appealing.

It’s been claimed that federal workers settle for lower pay in exchange for job security. Don’t believe it. A worker with a high school education earns 21 percent more working for the federal government than for a private employer and receives 72 percent more in benefits. A worker with a bachelor’s degree also makes out better with Uncle Sam, getting about the same wages as in the private sector but 46 percent more in benefits. Only professionals, such as lawyers, medical doctors and Ph.D.s, get paid less in federal jobs than private sector ones, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In addition, the federal workplace offers 10 paid holidays, plus 13-26 days of annual vacation (depending on longevity), and up to 13 paid sick days a year. All in all, up to 49 paid days off.

That’s easy street. Meanwhile, taxpayers are on the road to serfdom, working longer and paying more to support a government that does not serve them.

Betsy McCaughey has a Ph.D. in American history and has taught at Vassar and Columbia University. She is a former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of “Beating Obamacare.” She reads the law so you don’t have to. Visit

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