By Matthew Dallek, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Federal government employees have endured harsh attacks from across the political spectrum in recent months. But the federal employees I know--lawyers, policymakers, and congressional staffers--are serious, dedicated and hard-working people who log much more than the 40 hours a week they're expected to work. And while it's true that they tend to receive good salaries and benefits, most of them could be earning a substantially larger salary if they decided to find work in the private sector.
I asked Julie Anderson, my colleague at the Bipartisan Policy Center, for her thoughts about why federal employees have received such a bad reputation as incompetent bureaucrats. Anderson has worked in all three branches of government. She is now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center leading a project looking at ways to strengthen American democracy, and her government positions include jobs she held at the Environmental Protection Agency and as a special assistant for legislative affairs in the Clinton White House.
She describes a core contradiction within America’s political culture. Americans dislike the federal government on a macro level, and Washington has become a potent catch-all symbol of whatever happens to the country that isn't positive. Yet, Anderson astutely points out that most Americans don't want to abolish the government services on which they rely. Few Americans are clamoring for an end to Medicare and Social Security, for instance. Police, firefighters, and public libraries and public transportation provide crucial government-run services to families in communities nationwide.
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Several forces have fueled the antipathy towards career employees. On the left, we’ve witnessed in recent decades a broad attack on some of America's major private and public institutions. Some on the left have attacked government agencies and staffers as corrupt, as routinely failing to police corporations because they’ve become overly cozy with them. Occasionally, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories--whether a government hand in JFK's assassination or government involvement in 9/11--dampen confidence in government.
The antigovernment and anti-civil servant theme has also gained traction due to the right’s assault on the evils of ‘big government.' Career employees are now routinely vilified as wasteful and ineffective bureaucrats, who simply exist as a terrible drain on taxpayers' money. One Senate candidate in Nevada, for instance, is calling for abolishing the Department of Education and phasing out Social Security.
Anderson cites a third and equally crucial factor fueling our national distempers. The drumbeat of scandals and pseudo-scandals we read about in the news media and on the blogosphere--coupled with a growing legion of politicians who have turned Washington-bashing into a sport--have deepened Americans' diminishing faith in career government employees. “Everybody who works for government gets tarnished” in the broader political assault on the city of Washington, Anderson says.
Anderson's professional experience in fact belies the ever-more-salient image of inept and corrupt government employees. Numerous career civil servants are “hard-working, dedicated and super-smart” people. What's more, civil servants provide continuity as administrations transition every four or eight years, and “they should be lauded for that,” she said, not scorned.