What to Cut: Red tape stalls firing of ineffective federal workers

Working for the federal government used to mean a trade-off -- lower salaries, in exchange for higher job security. Today, that trade-off is gone as federal workers often make good money with little risk of being fired.

Though numbers are hard to come by in the mammoth 2.4 million-employee federal workforce, an analysis by USA Today found the federal government fired only one half of one percent of its workers in fiscal year 2011. That's about five times smaller than in the private sector.

If Congress and the Executive Branch are loath to confront the bloat in government, there may be good reason. Firing federal workers is hard.

"When President Carter first came to office, he decided that he was going to revamp the civil service process," said Tom Schatz, president of the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste. "Nobody really talked to him much after that in the federal agencies."

Schatz said "it's extremely difficult to fire anyone in any agency unless you're sitting in a hot tub with a wine glass and you're in charge of the GSA agency out in the west."

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That, of course, was a reference to Jeff Neely, the organizer of the infamous $800,000 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas.

And still, Neely was not technically fired -- civil service regulations allowed him to retire with benefits.

Just this month, another GSA executive, Paul Prouty, who was fired after the Vegas conference scandal, was re-instated with 11 months back-pay after an administrative judge ruled against the GSA.

Another example of the cumbersome process of employee discipline in the federal government is the Baltimore-based Social Security Administration worker who was reprimanded for "excessive flatulence" last year. Five pages of meticulous notes documenting  his 61 infractions were catalogued over several months. He was notified that he had a right to a written grievance, to union representation, and to a civil rights complaint.

Last January, after all that, the reprimand was withdrawn.

"We have great federal employees," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said. "The vast majority of them do superb work."

But he added, "You can't get highly effective people to come work in the federal government because they have no capability to manage the people under them -- because  of the office of Office of Personnel Management rules and union contracts."

Still, the existing system has no shortage of defenders. "They are the best-educated workforce in the United States. They tend to be highly specialized. They could go to (the) private sector and earn more money," said the District of Columbia's non-voting representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Robert Waldeck, an attorney who represents many federal workers facing disciplinary procedures, said: "The government fires thousands and thousands of people per year. Most cases go uncontested."

Waldeck adds that civil service protections provide an important buffer against political recriminations. "Back in the past and, unfortunately also recently, political reasons played a large role in who got hired and fired in the federal government, and often when a new president would come in absolutely everyone would be fired," he said.

Former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh told Fox News, "The broader point is public employees deserve due process the way other employees do, but we don't want to have a protected class. Otherwise, there's a disconnect there that can only lead to hostility."

Lately, the sequester has been forcing hard choices. Some federal workers are likely to be furloughed. And agencies will be forced to cut back as the private sector has. Bayh said it may be an important opportunity, "because the wolf can't be kept from the door."

But there is some resistance to furloughs, ironically from one of the Senate's toughest budget cutters. Coburn on Wednesday wrote the Office of Personnel Management demanding that before any critical worker is furloughed, OPM should first target workers who "are literally paid to do nothing or do not even show up for work."

He wrote that over a seven-year period, the government lost more than 9,000 years of work as a result of AWOL employees.