Secretary of State

The President’s Right to Say ‘You’re Fired’

By Philip K. Howard,
from The Wall Street Journal,

Today’s civil-service system violates the Constitution. Trump has the power to fix it.

President Trump wants to overhaul the civil service. Even ardent liberals agree it needs to be rebuilt, but past efforts at reform have withered in Congress under union power and public indifference. There’s a more direct path: Mr. Trump can repudiate civil service in its current form as a violation of the Constitution’s mandate that “the executive power shall be vested in a President.” Executive power is toothless without practical authority over personnel. “If any power whatsoever is in its nature executive,” James Madison once observed, “it is the power of appointing, overseeing, and controlling those who execute the laws.” Taking away the president’s power over executive branch employees is synonymous with removing his executive power altogether. Yet this is exactly the case today. Because of civil-service laws passed by Congress many years ago, the president has direct authority over a mere 2% of the federal workforce. The question is whether those laws are constitutional. Does Congress have the power to tell the president that he cannot terminate inept or insubordinate employees? The answer, I believe, is self-evident. A determined president could replace the civil-service system on his own, by executive order. The move would doubtless be challenged in court, but it would likely be upheld, especially if the new framework advances legitimate goals, honors principles of neutral hiring and is designed to foster a culture of excellence.

Although civil service was once thought the cure for corruption, it has become a cancer, killing good government. Accountability is nonexistent: More civil servants die on the job than are terminated or demoted. The culture this has created within many agencies is awful. The accountability vacuum removes the oxygen of purpose and replaces it with stale resignation.

“When a single individual free rides,” a 2006 study of organizational behavior found, there is a “precipitous decline in teammate contributions.” Human initiative is replaced by a “suffocating bureaucracy,” as the National Commission on the Public Service—led by Paul Volcker in 1989 and again in 2003—found. Instead of promoting pride in public service, the commission reported, good workers resent “the protections provided to those poor performers among them who impede their own work and drag down the reputation of all government workers.” Overhauling the civil service must be the cornerstone of any serious effort to fix broken government. Regulatory reform is otherwise impossible. What replaces red tape? People. Scrapping mindless rules requires empowering humans to take responsibility for results. Real choices—say, to focus environmental review on material impacts—can be practical again. Thick rule books could be replaced by pamphlets. But no one wants to give officials flexibility to use common sense unless they also can be held accountable when they are incompetent or mean-spirited.

Democracy requires an unbroken chain of accountability.

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