To the extent that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki relies on his $199,700 per year salary as a cabinet secretary for his living expenses, he might want to consider cutting back.
That’s because as it pertains to being the head guy at the VA, Eric Shinseki is toast.
A growing chorus, consisting of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, is calling for Shinseki’s head. Sooner rather than later, President Obama will either fire Shinseki or Shinseki will step down.
Shinseki’s departure will provide President Obama the tiniest fig leaf of political cover. But that’s all it will accomplish. Otherwise, it is likely that nothing will change as a result of sacking Shinseki.
But it need not be so.
Tragic as the VA scandal has been for the veterans and their families who have suffered and in many cases died from the department’s bureaucratic intransigence, the episode is perhaps useful anyway. The VA scandal has revealed in stark detail the fact that the executive branch of government, led by the president, is almost powerless to control its own employees. We may want to hold President Obama accountable for malfeasant employees at VA hospitals. But the fact is, he has little practical authority over them.
Obama can fire Eric Shinseki at any time and for any reason. But that is not the case when it comes to most of the 314,000 civilian employees who nominally work for Shinseki.
Thank the Civil Service System, which was created in 1871 with the very good intention of preventing presidents from filling government jobs with political cronies. Because of rules put in place to avoid politicizing the daily operation of government, civil service employees must undergo a laborious process to get hired. But once on the payroll, the process for firing them is positively Byzantine.
The U.S. government is the country’s largest single employer and President Obama is nominally the “boss” of 1.8 million civilian employees. Yet in most cases, he has little authority to get rid of the slackers.
From that impotence we get the sclerotic, lumbering incompetence of very nearly every department and agency of the federal government.
We can fix this and the fix is magnificently simple.
Leave in place the civil service mechanisms for hiring federal workers based on testing, qualification and merit (rather than political connection). But give the president – and by extension the department heads under him – the authority to fire federal workers at their sole discretion and with little appeal.
Instantly, the president would become personally accountable for failures in government such as the VA scandal. Instantly, he would become personally accountable for the thousands of bureaucratic government drones who consume billions of dollars while doing nothing useful. Being personally responsible for the actions of so many employees, the president would have a real incentive to keep their numbers low.
It’s completely non-partisan. Presidents, who regardless of stripe always want power, would actually have some. But that power would come with direct accountability for the quality of what We the People get from our federal government.
Make this change to government, and the suffering of our veterans at the hands of the VA will not have been in vain.