Amid the cynicism and criticisms of the media and the politicians who use the federal government and the political system as a scapegoat lie the 5 million federal employees who chose to join the government workforce.
Most of them are dedicated and enthusiastic about public service and helping their fellow human beings. These numbers do not even count the millions of contractors because the Congressional Budget Office says: “Regrettably, CBO is unaware of any comprehensive information about the size of the federal government’s contracted workforce,” as they told Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., ranking member of the House Budget Committee, last year.
Every election cycle, someone running for president talks about getting rid of various federal departments. Sometimes candidates forget what agencies they want to defund. This is partly due to a myth that federal workers are overpaid, when in reality if you compare them with workers in the private sector, they’re actually underpaid.
Most of the federal workforce is built up of people with a deep love of country. Don’t we want people who are dedicated to helping people in the public good? Why the damnation of federal workers when we want people to be encouraged?
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the dean of the House as its longest serving member (more than 51 years), told us that he still believes in “what sent me to Congress, to determine which direction to go or we’ll fall backward.” For Conyers, “Martin Luther King motivated enthusiasm in politics — he put himself on the line … King motivated young people. We’ve made so much progress, come so far since then.”
In the wake of the controversy at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass a bill that, with needed reforms of waiting periods and ease of obtaining care, made it easier to fire VA Senior Executive Service members.
Under the law, senior executives could already be fired for conduct or performance. Now, fired employees have only seven days to appeal to a judge from the Merit Systems Protection Board. The judge then has 21 days to render a verdict. After that, no further appeal is allowed.
Granted, VA became a lightning rod — rightfully so — but bills that cut workplace rights are not a good way to encourage people to work for the federal government. It’s almost been ignored that veterans overwhelmingly love VA health care.
People should want to feel welcomed to work for the federal government. On Oct. 21, 2015, when Vice President Joe Biden announced in the Rose Garden that he would not be entering the contest for the Democratic nomination for president, he said: “I’ve had the very great, good fortune and privilege of being in public service most of my adult life, since I’ve been 25 years old. And through personal triumphs and tragedies, my entire family — my son Beau, my son Hunter, my daughter Ashley, Jill — our whole family — and this sounds corny — but we found purpose in public life.”
That pride is why federal workers are willing to take a lesser salary. Last year, the Federal Salary Council reported that federal employees make an average of 35 percent less than those in the private sector. In Washington-Baltimore, they make 51 percent less. Workers don’t join the federal workforce to get rich. They join to make a difference.
We join with all those who feel disgust when the occasional congressperson takes a bribe and hides the money in his or her freezer; when a vice president takes bribes in the White House; and when congresspersons take bribes off the floor of the House. But those are the rare circumstances that dirty the name of all public servants. Those are not what we’ve seen and worked with. Most federal employees know that 99.8 percent of public servants are mission driven. They look in the mirror and feel that they have accomplished something for humanity.
Politics and government are incredibly gratifying when you can work on issues ranging from civil rights; age discrimination; housing; education; helping the poor; providing health care or Social Security; and ameliorating natural disasters to creating a strong military to defend the U.S. and lead the world. Those and so many more are all gratifying purposes for public service. That should be our response the next time someone disparages your local elected official who had the courage to run for office when most don’t.
Robert Weiner is a former spokesman for the Clinton White House and House Government Operations Committee and a former member of senior staff for Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Reps. John Conyers, Charles Rangel, Claude Pepper, Ed Koch, and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Ben Lasky is a senior policy analyst at Solutions for Change.