Linda Tripp’s Payoff

She screwed the president and got a cushy job. No, not Monica.

You give the president a blow job and he gives you a soft job: high pay, no qualifications, no heavy lifting. Right? That’s what poor Monica Lewinsky thought. And the theory of the Republican impeachment drive is not too different. Although the alleged quid pro quo was the helping to cover up the sex, rather than the sex itself (and although Lewinsky never actually enjoyed the alleged payoff), the articles of impeachment nevertheless assume that Flytrap is about an exchange of favors.

How naive. Anyone who understands bureaucracies should know that the way to get a cushy job isn’t to make yourself desirable but to make yourself undesirable. That’s why, while we’re suffering through a national crisis over alleged favors to Lewinsky, the one person who clearly has enjoyed a big payoff–at taxpayer expense–is the arch-dragoness, Linda Tripp.

Tripp was a secretary at the White House, a holdover from the Bush administration. When she began to look like trouble, she was transferred to the Pentagon. The choice of the Pentagon is no surprise. Although conservatives who inveigh against overpaid, do-nothing federal bureaucrats probably have in mind the Department of Health and Human Services, if your urgent need is a government job in general, rather than anything in particular that job might accomplish, apparently the Pentagon is your best shot.

Besides a military force of one and a half million people, the Defense Department employs about 800,000 civilians. Linda Tripp is one of them, holding the position of public affairs specialist with a civil service ranking of GS-15, Step 6. That puts the 49-year-old high-school grad at the top of the Pentagon’s middle management ranks. Like all GS employees, she just received an across-the-board-pay increase. Tripp’s raise, including a “locality” adjustment for working in the Washington, D.C., area, was 3.68 percent, bringing her salary to $94,098 a year.

For which she does …? Since March 1998, nothing. Although she has supposedly been working at home, she was stripped of her duties–but not her pay or her title–shortly after the scandal broke. Tripp has characterized this as a politically motivated “demotion.” It will strike many as a demotion devoutly to be wished.

Monica Lewinsky’s title at the Pentagon was confidential assistant to the assistant secretary for public affairs. Her job was writing press releases, for which she was paid $33,000. Note that Lewinsky got this job as a payoff for being undesirable to a presidential aide, not for being desirable to the president.

Officially, Tripp is the public affairs specialist for a program called the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, an arguably worthwhile annual propaganda effort that takes 60 civilian “public opinion leaders” on a weeklong tour of military operations. Tripp had primary responsibility for the paperwork involved in the selection process, for making travel and hotel arrangements, as well as for other logistic odds and ends such as the week’s kick-off banquet. According to the New York Times, before Tripp took the job, this position was part-time.

When pressed for more detail, the person now doing Tripp’s job used the word “coordinating” a lot, but that was about it. There is, it turns out, no official description of the job. Writing one is among the tasks Tripp is being paid to perform now.

But there are official descriptions of other GS-15 public affairs specialist positions. For instance, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is currently looking for someone to “assist in the reviews and analysis of numerous requests for speeches; to develop, clear, release, and distribute a wide range of information and data concerning the nature and objective of the Commission’s programs; [and to] prepare press releases, fact sheets, etc. and arrange press conferences.” Translation: PR grunt. Salary: $80,658 to $104,851.

To try to get some sort of independent measure of what these jobs are worth, I called Kelly Services, the nationwide temp agency. Without mentioning Tripp or the Pentagon, I described her job there to the woman at Kelly. Oh, she said, that’s high-end secretarial. How much would you have to pay somebody to do a job like that, I asked. Oh, $18 to $25 an hour, she said. That’s $36,000 to $50,000 a year–roughly half of what Tripp is being paid not to do it.

What’s more, there is no evidence of any competitive evaluation of Tripp before she was offered this job. The employee, a problem in one place, was simply moved to another. There’s a name for this personnel technique: It’s called “Pass the Trash.” Federal civilian employees who don’t commit felonies and don’t cuss out their supervisors pretty much have a guaranteed job with guaranteed wages for life. Tripp has spent 26 years in this cocoon, which will enable her to retire on a handsome pension, based on the average of her three highest consecutive years of pay.

Will her job description be done by then? How long could it take? “She’s still working on it,” a Pentagon source tells me. What’s the opposite of stress? Where else could you pull down over $90,000 and live such a deadline-free existence? And have that much free time to gab with your girlfriends?

Not all the time-wasters in the Pentagon are civilians. There are plenty of dead-end GIs in dead-end jobs, too. But at least most of them did something important earlier in their careers–and probably something dangerous, to boot. And Tripp’s pay and retirement benefits are staggering compared with those of the men and women in those hard jobs now. Most of the folks on duty in the skies over Iraq make about half of what Linda Tripp makes. Indeed, Tripp pulls down more than all but a handful of the U.S. military’s most senior officers. She earns more than a ballistic missile submarine commander and is on a par with aircraft carrier skippers in the Persian Gulf and Army generals ready to lead thousands of troops into combat.

Imagine what Bob Barr and Henry Hyde would say if Monica had got a deal like that.