By James Goodwin, Center for Progressive Reform
When your public approval rating has hovered at or below 20 percent for the last several years, maybe the last thing you should be doing is maligning other government institutions. That didn’t stop a group of Senators from spending several hours doing just that today during a joint hearing involving the Senate Budget and Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committees. The joint hearing was nominally about a nonsense regulatory reform proposal called “regulatory budgeting” (for more on that, see here), but it quickly devolved into a no-holds-barred hate session directed at federal agency employees, as the upright and honorable members of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” repeatedly attacked the prevailing “culture” at agencies.
The term “culture” was repeated dozens of times throughout the hearing, as the conservative members of the committee waxed patronizingly about the need to change the “culture” at agencies. The Republican Senators and their witnesses used the term as a thinly veiled code word to denote what they perceive as the personal and moral failings of government workers. In short, they see government workers as stupid and out of touch with reality. Worse still, they have no practical experience with running a business. According to the Senators, government workers are at best little more than automatons that churn out oppressive regulations with no appreciation for the harmful consequences they inflict upon John Q. Small-Business-Owner. At worst, they are ideological zealots, drunk with power and hell-bent on destroying our capitalist society.
These caricatures couldn’t be further from the truth, of course. Government workers are no different from everyone else. They have families. They are active in their communities. They are in touch with reality, at least as much as the Senators. And when they show up to work each day, the vast majority of them do the best job they can under some very difficult circumstances to advance the public interest.
When members of Congress level personal attacks against public servants, it should outrage us all. After all, they are often doing precisely what previous congresses have told them to do, and their only crime is doing that job well. Virtually every other country on earth would dream of having a public workforce as talented and professional as our own.
But, public servants can’t defend themselves very easily, so they are a popular target for elected officials. In many cases, elected officials use these attacks to distract attention from or deflect blame for their own failings.
We frequently hear about the abysmally low job satisfaction rates among federal employees. A survey released last December found that the average job satisfaction rate among all federal employees has fallen for four straight years to a score of 56.9 out of a 100. It’s not hard to see why this score is so low. They haven’t received a pay raise in years. Employment benefits, including health care and pensions, are being eliminated or significantly curtailed. Agency budgets are being cut year-after-year. Staffing levels have drastically reduced with the result that many employees are doing the job of two or even three people. And as today’s disgrace of hearing demonstrated, many members of Congress are all too happy to criticize public servants for simply doing their jobs.
Most federal employees could be making a lot more money under a lot better circumstances in the private sector. So, why don’t they? For many, it’s because of their commitment to the public service and the mission of the agency they work for. It seems to me these workers deserve at least some praise, not more unfounded condemnation.