Thanks to the litigious nature of American culture, employers in the private sector have a tough time firing people for poor performance. Misconduct, especially that caught in the act, generally is an exception to that trend. CBS News discovers that’s not the case in the federal civil-service system, where chronic bad behavior and even spending half the day watching Internet porn doesn’t qualify for immediate termination. Instead, it starts a process that can last as long as two years, and often just means that managers shrug off bad behavior and bad performance … even when the employee presents a threat to others:

A CBS News investigation looks at how hard it is for the U.S. government to discipline or fire employees who behave badly. With examples ranging from extravagant to explicit, civil service rules meant to protect public workers from political pressure may be backfiring, and costing you big, reports CBS News correspondent Don Dahler.

At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), red tape is preventing the removal of a top level employee accused of viewing porn two to six hours a day while at work, since 2010. Even though investigators found 7,000 pornographic files on his computer and even caught him watching porn, he remains on the payroll.

At a Congressional hearing, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy was asked why she hadn’t fired the employee and said, “I actually have to work through the administrative process, as you know.”

The administrative process meant to prevent against politically motivated firings is the civil servant protection system. The rules give employees the right to appeal a termination, a process that can take up two years.

The civil service system was designed to end the spoils system that preceded it in federal government. Prior to the civil-service regulations, every federal government job was a political appointment, a system which allowed for rampant corruption and incompetence, as well as majority-party featherbedding. The civil-service system created a difference between political appointees and careerists; the latter would be protected from political influence, while the former could come and go at the president’s pleasure … although Democrats tried to turn even their dismissal into a scandal when George Bush requested resignations from several US Attorneys in the second term of his presidency.

Initially, at least, the civil-service reform worked. The federal government got more professional and competent, while political featherbedding got greatly reduced. However, the reform has clearly gone out of control, and now we have a situation where accountability for performance has all but disappeared. At least under the spoils system, voters could hold the majority party accountable for bad behavior by putting another party in charge and have them clear out the deadwood. These days, the deadwood get to stick around for years while watching porn on taxpayer time. (It’s worth noting that this might be a better use of time than actually doing EPA work, which more often entails interfering with the private sector on behalf of environmental extremists, especially in this administration.) The growth of power within public-employee unions has made this trend even worse.

What’s the solution? Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chair of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, wants to make some common-sense changes to the civil-service system, but that may not be enough without some real reform of PEUs at the federal level as well. We need to find a system somewhere between the spoils and the civil service, and mostly we need to significantly reduce the size and scope of the federal government so that we have a lot less to police at any one time. Start with right-to-work legislation at the federal level and the end of mandatory dues payments [see update below], and the PEUs will have a lot less cash with which to promote the expansion of federal government through political support of Democrats. That would be one big step, and we’ve already seen it work in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan.

Update: One Twitter follower says that federal PEUs do not get mandatory dues payments through the paychecks of their workers. I’ll see if I can check that, but wanted to note the dispute.