Thursday, December 22, 2016
The Little People Living in the Swamp
Get the feeling that the pricey real estate in Washington, D.C. might be facing a bit of the old downsizing syndrome? Typically, through downturns and severe recessions, our nation’s capital (which most definitely includes those pricey suburbs in Virginia and Maryland) seems to fly high above it all. Between lobbyists and governmental employees, many at the top of the General Schedule (the federal civil service ranking system) food chain or high in the military command structure, there’s always plenty of secure money flowing around.
But there’s a new sheriff in town, hell-bent on cutting bureaucracies, eliminating or reducing regulatory bodies and perhaps shutting down entire federal agencies. As the wealthiest cabinet in America’s history seems poised to take over, their not-so-secret-mandate is to decimate the federal bureaucracy – with the solitary exception of things military. Social safety nets will have new intentionally-created holes, and lots of people are expected to fall through them. Bureaucracies will be pressured to crumble. Tax breaks favoring the wealthy are now priorities; everything non-military is expendable.
But “draining the swamp” will put a lot of ordinary people in the cross-hairs of the big “slice and dice”: federal civil servants promised tenure, protected by a complex set of Civil Service laws and collective bargaining agreements… unlikely to go down without a fight. President-elect Trump is looking increasingly to the advice of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a man who gets the problems and the barriers Trump is likely to face. It won’t be pretty, as Gingrich confirmed in a December 16th interview with Washington Post journalist, James Hohmann.
Gingrich sees the draining as a literal attack on the federal bureaucracy: “It’s got to be a straight-out war… You can’t fix it unless you change the civil service laws,” he said. “You can’t change the civil service laws within the normal framework of Washington.” So somehow, he opines, Trump has to pick the federal agency with one of the lowest positive popular perceptions among federal operations. His advice is to use the obvious failings of the Veterans Administration as an excuse to undermine the entire Civil Service system and decimate federal employees’ right to join unions.
“To win over recruits to this crusade, Gingrich said, Trump should keep his message about VA simple and violent: ‘Do you think people who kill veterans should stay in their jobs … [should] we make the government union people happy and keep their jobs, people who we know broke the rules and killed veterans?’
“Trump’s 10-point plan to reform VA includes using ‘the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline the federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust.’ Civil service protections have already been significantly weakened for VA senior executives.
“Gingrich’s vicious accusations about supposedly homicidal VA employees, many of whom are veterans serving veterans, demonstrates a particularly aggressive attitude toward the workforce. It ignores the noble work of many VA health-care professionals, including whistleblowers who exposed the scandal over the cover-up of long patient wait times.
“Yet, his frustration with VA is reasonable, even as his rhetoric and the public policy it implies are not. With justifiable disgust, he spoke about workers ‘in Los Angeles who deleted 3,000 reservations to make their record look better’ and the veteran ‘laying in the shower, dead, for 24 hours.’
“Speaking to The Washington Post on Friday [12/16], Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the Department of Veterans Affairs ‘a disgrace.’ He cited people who deleted V.A. reservations in California, possibly causing veterans to suffer severe health consequences, as a part of the problem. ‘It is embarrassing that the senior veterans' organizations endorse the current Secretary because he has failed totally to clean it up,’ Gingrich said. ‘And they did it because they'd prefer the current status where they have access to the V.A. offices and they have access, rather than make sure that veterans are taken care of.’ (Washington Post Live)
“To back up the 3,000 figure, Gingrich, in a Sunday email, cited an article from the conservative Daily Caller website that said the Los Angeles VA hospital would get 3,000 requests for medical exams a month, but could only accommodate 800. The rollover would create a backlog. The article did not say how many requests were cancelled. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that ‘in the Los Angeles, Long Beach, Loma Linda and San Diego VA systems, 2,667 new patients had been told that no appointments were available within 90 days,’ according to an inspector general’s audit.” The Post.
That the VA is and has been severely underfunded for years, literally unable to update or replace outmoded equipment, facilities and engage the necessary staff, is never mentioned. Hiring freezes haven’t helped; there simply aren’t enough doctors and nurses to handle the caseload. As for miscreant administrators who cooked the books to hide the fatally-long waiting lists for medical attention or rewarding those whistle-blowers who revealed the problem, there are plenty of existing remedies under federal law to punish the wrongdoers and reward the whistle-blowers without massive restructuring and declaring war on the entire cadre of federal employees.
Additionally, in fairness, it’s not all doom and gloom at the VA: “A Harvard Business School case study, published in November and updated this month, concludes that the team assembled by VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald has ‘made impressive progress over the past year.’ In July, a literature review in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found ‘the VA often (but not always) performs better than or similarly to other systems of care with regard to the safety and effectiveness of care.’
“Neither article is a blanket endorsement of VA health care, which remains tainted by the scandal that erupted in 2014 over the covering up of long patient wait times. Neither article deals with the many cases of management retaliation against VA whistleblowers, who exposed much of the wrongdoing. Yet each shows the nation’s largest integrated health-care system performs far better than Republican rhetoric indicates. Just in the past few days, GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), called for new agency leadership as they told President-elect Donald Trump ‘it is clear that not all veterans are receiving the high-quality care they deserve.’” Federal Insider, Washington Post, December 21st. But there is a bigger agenda here, which might be confused for a while as the labels change.
In an administration where what you call something is as important as what it stands for, Donald Trump is abandoning the “drain the swamp” mantra… but not the underlying program that it represents. Gingrich explains (AOL.com, December 21st): “‘I'm told he now just disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn't want to use it anymore,’ Gingrich said of the ‘drain the swamp’ refrain in the ‘Morning Edition’ interview. ‘I'd written what I thought was a very cute tweet about 'the alligators are complaining,' and somebody wrote back and said they were tired of hearing this stuff.’” Has the target policy changed? Nope! Just the words.
Remember, the Trump administration wants to shred massive environmental and financial regulations, disembowel the agencies charged with enforcing those statutes, and nothing would make that job so much easier than to kill civil service protections and then de-staff those agencies so that even if they wanted to enforce the law, they would lack the ability even to try. Thus, he would be able to “unpass” laws by making enforcement impossible without having to take those laws to Congress for reconsideration. Is the federal bureaucracy bigger than it should be? Aren’t all bureaucracies to some degree or another? There have to be better ways.
This “slice and dice” has the ugly agenda-reality of (a) cutting the federal government but giving the savings almost entirely (96%) to the richest taxpayers, (b) eliminating regulations aimed at protecting society to put more money into the hands of big business and (c) repealing laws without involving Congress in the process. There is a way to manage an increase in efficiency – what most Americans care about – without dismembering the Civil Service simply to benefit the very few at the top of the economic ladder.
Or we can simply stop being a nation of laws and let the strongman have his way as he, with a cabinet who have collective net worth exceeds that of the entire bottom 30% of our economic ladder combined, dictates how the United States will work going forward… under his unilateral control. As I learned in law school, creating new government laws and structures in reaction to a few extreme events without examining the impact for most situations, never works out well. The rest of us call it, “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
I’m Peter Dekom, and we need to be very careful how we react to a plutocratic few who are trying to make all the rules and determine all the benefits without input from the governed