The end of civil service?

Over 140 years ago, the federal government began its reform of the bureaucracy to the civil-service system, a process which took decades to complete.  Its pinnacle of reform came in 1939 when Congress passed the Hatch Act, which barred federal employees from conducting political activity on taxpayer time and government property.  As government expanded rapidly from that point, though, the federal bureaucracy developed its own interests in policy, and this year we have reaped the results.  In my column for The Fiscal Times, I write that the IRS scandal and the National Parks Service antics during the shutdown show that the civil-service ideal is dead — especially in this administration:

In May, the Inspector General for the IRS found that the agency had targeted groups applying for tax-exempt status on the basis of their political beliefs, especially those groups that referenced the Tea Party. Those target lists continued to be used as IRS officials such as Commissioner Douglas Shulman testified to Congress that the agency conducted no such targeting.

Nor was that that the only way in which the IRS scrutinized President Obama’s opposition.  USA Today reported three weeks ago that the IRS specifically targeted groups that had “anti-Obama rhetoric” in their literature.

In one case, with an application from the Patriots of Charleston, the IRS flagged “negative Obama commentary” on their website as a reason to hold up approval for their tax-exempt application.  For the Tea Party of North Idaho, “significant inflammatory language, highly emotional language” was enough to start peppering the group with demands to release information on their donors and the companies owned by those donors.  …

Unknown at the time but reported this week, the National Parks Service chased down a group of senior citizens at Yellowstone National Park when the shutdown commenced on October 1st.  After informing the busload of tourists, some of whom were tourists from other countries, that the park was no longer accessible, the rangers locked them into a closed hotel for several hours with armed guards posted at the exits.  When finally allowed to get back on the bus and leave Yellowstone, rangers stopped the tourists from pausing to take pictures, chasing after them for “recreating.”

That arguably constitutes kidnapping or false arrest, especially conducted under color of authority for no other reason than to score political points in the shutdown.  One of the tourists called it “Gestapo tactics,” and an NPS ranger anonymously confirmed this as a deliberate strategy by NPS.  “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can,” the anonymous ranger told The Washington Times. “It’s disgusting.”

It certainly is, and it’s part of a disturbing pattern emerging in the second term of Barack Obama.

That last incident in particular goes far beyond the already-objectionable “Washington Monument strategy” of extorting operating funds out of Congress.  It speaks to two related developments in American governance — the expansion of power in the federal government, and the arbitrary manner in which it gets applied.  That may be called many things, but it’s neither “civil” nor “service.”

David French wrote about the same issue earlier this week for National Review:

An ethical agency would evaluate its options in the face of cutbacks and do its best — in concert with state and local governments and citizen volunteers — to maintain the broadest possible access to the public. Any closures would be a regrettable necessity, not a defiant statement, and under no circumstances would more money be spent to keep the public out than it took to allow the public in. But we are not dealing with an ethical agency.

Mark Steyn a few minutes ago called for the abolition of the NPS and IRS, and given the abysmal conduct of both agencies, I agree. But the rot goes far deeper. We’re witnessing the end of the civil service.

The utopian goal of the civil service was to create something like a professional class of public servants, individuals dedicated to the public good regardless of the party in power — a final break from the spoils system and its attendant rampant corruption and cronyism. And in one sense the civil-service system succeeded. The spoils system was broken. Instead, however, of either the back-and-forth of the old system, or the true “civil service” envisioned by the new, there’s now a permanent distribution of spoils – to one side of our ideological divide.

It doesn’t matter to me which side of the ideological divide it serves, actually. We have returned to the spoils system, only now an incoming administration can’t clear out the careerists any longer, thanks to the civil-service protections that were supposed to keep federal bureaucrats independent and professional.  This gives a President either an army of federal workers to punish Americans for opposing his policies, or a band of saboteurs to undermine his policies.  It’s unconscionable and untenable, and needs to be addressed.

Glenn Reynolds suggests, tongue a little in cheek perhaps, that we need to go back to the full-spoils system:

It’s also disturbing how little pushback there has been from the supposedly nonpartisan civil service — which, of course, is composed overwhelmingly of Democrats.

As I’ve suggested before, a return to the “spoils system” would be more honest — and politicians might be less willing to grant so much power to the government if they knew that sooner or later it would be in the hands of their political enemies. It would also mean, of course, that a government job would no longer be a lifelong proposition — but that might not be a bug, but a feature, too.

What we really need is a large-scale reduction in government power to greatly reduce the number of bureaucrats and their ability to conduct politics through regulation.  And I’d start with the National Parks Service by returning the land to the states, which will make access and regulation a lot more accountable to the people who live there.