In 2014, a scandal exploded across America. The Department of Veterans Affairs was forging wait lists to cover up the fact that thousands of sick and wounded veterans were waiting months for treatment they were supposed to receive within two weeks. Men and women who had risked their lives for America on the battlefield and survived instead died at home due to their own government’s failures.
These failures are ongoing, and there is evidence they may have occurred in the early 2000’s as well. That’s nearly two decades of negligence and cover ups. I could go on a good, long rant about the VA scandal, and perhaps I will at some time. But I have a different point to make today.
Those failures were inevitable.
As I said, there is evidence members of the VA have forged wait lists to hide their incompetence under Bush, Obama, and now Trump. Whatever your politics, you likely think at least one of them is a good man. Whatever their other flaws may be, there is no evidence any of them wanted veterans to suffer or even thought it was the least bit tolerable. Nor do we have reason to believe the nine VA Department Secretaries since 2000, some of them veterans themselves, would find the VA’s actions acceptable.
The same goes for members of Congress. When news of the scandal broke in 2014 there was bipartisan and universal outrage. I challenge you to find one Senator or Representative who, when asked about the VA scandal, gave the impression it was anything other than one of the worst things to happen to America.
And yet the same failures are ongoing. Why?
Before I answer that, let’s look back at another scandal from a few years ago. In 2013, the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups applying for tax exempt status. Organizations with words such as “tea party” and “patriot” in their names were singled out for increased scrutiny that liberal groups did not receive.
Let’s be clear: this was a government agency using it’s power to stifle opposition speech. Liberal government employees in a liberal administration were making it more difficult for conservative opponents to spread their message. This goes against the very heart of the American experiment.
This politicization of government agencies was also inevitable.
Although it may be preferable when it comes to the Federal budget, the government is not a business; it’s leaders have different motivations. In a business, senior leaders are judged by the company’s profit. Their motivations are therefore to make a better product that will sell for more while costing less to make. Anything that interferes with that profit motive, be it incompetence or disobedience, must be dealt with swiftly.
The politicians who run the government have different motivations. They want to get reelected. They want to put their names on legacy defining legislation. They want fame. They want to do this or they want to do that.
To do these things, they must reward friends and punish enemies. President Andrew Jackson was the first to violate a polite but unwritten rule and accomplish this goal by firing political opponents from government jobs and hiring his supporters. This leads to a politicized government bureaucracy in which public servants supposedly working on behalf of all Americans, like the director of the Exempt Organizations Unit of the IRS for instance, can abuse the immense authority of the Federal government to advance a political agenda.
To counteract the spoils system President Jackson introduced, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, and several updates since. Jackson began his politicization of the Federal bureaucracy by firing a huge number of government employees, so naturally the first step to undoing that corruption is to make it more difficult to fire a government employee and standardizing how they are hired and promoted.
With severely reduced authority to promote or fire their employees, managers in the Federal service lost their two biggest means of motivating and improving their workforce. If a manager cannot rapidly promote a talented employee, they will go elsewhere. If a manager cannot fire an under performing employee, they will stick around forever rather than face the trials and tribulations of the private sector.
Here’s the thing: there is no solution. Every government bureaucracy is a balancing act between incompetence (the VA scandal) and corruption (the IRS targeting scandal). If we loosen up the rules on hiring and firing, each successive administration will politicize public service more and more. If we tighten the rules on hiring and firing, we protect more and more incompetence. Usually we’re left with some degree of both.
The only answer is to limit what the government does. The government cannot corrupt or fail what it is not a part of. There are a few essential things the government must do. Leave everything else to the private sector with the proper motives.