What Are Civil Service Protections?

Senate Democrats are insisting that employees of the proposed Department of Homeland Security be granted full “civil service protections.” President Bush has promised that he’ll veto any bill that includes such language. What are these controversial protections?

Essentially, job security and equal pay. Extraordinary job security is every civil servant’s most cherished perk. New federal hires who survive a three-year probationary period are automatically elevated to “career-appointment” status, the civil-service equivalent of academic tenure. Career appointees cannot be fired without “good cause,” such as gross incompetence, habitual tardiness, or on-the-job beer guzzling.

Even in the most egregious cases, dismissing a career appointee can be a drawn-out process. Since civil servants are considered to “own” their jobs, they are entitled to due process before their property can be seized. Axed employees are entitled to in-person hearings, a right guaranteed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. If that fails, the employee can appeal to the independent Merit Systems Protection Board, created by President Nixon in 1974 (as the Civil Service Commission). Hearings and appeals are not limited to terminations but can concern demotions, reprimands, and performance appraisals, too.

Equal pay is another hallowed protection. Civil servants with identical job titles or functions are guaranteed to receive identical salaries, regardless of performance. If an agency wants to reward Civil Servant X with a raise for his or her outstanding work, it must offer the same pay increase to Civil Servant Y, who catnaps and watches Judge Judy in the break room.

The first civil-service protections were created in response to widespread abuses during the decades after the Civil War, when the spoils system reigned and presidents stuffed the bureaucracy with their political cronies. (And swept the previous president’s political cronies out the door.) When President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881by a disgruntled would-be civil servant who hadn’t received a promised patronage job, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which created the first civil-service exams. The “good cause” rule was added a few years later.

President Bush argues that civil-service regulations are outmoded and that national security will be enhanced if the secretary of Homeland Security can punish laggards and reward talent. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the department’s chief Democratic champion, calls Bush’s demands “an insult to public employees.” The Senate will debate the bill this week.

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