The IRS Scandal Is a Test: Is It Too Hard to Fire Misbehaving Bureaucrats?

Everyone agrees that some employees acted incompetently. So how much time and money will it take to get rid of them?
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Under the headline, "Yes, heads should roll at the IRS," Ezra Klein points out that, at the very least, "A number of IRS employees developed criteria that was politically biased both in appearance and in effect. They were reined in once by their superiors, and then they changed the criteria again, and had to be reined in a second time. Their actions called the fairness of the agency into question and kicked off a national scandal. Even if their intent was pure, they showed bad judgment, more than a bit of incompetence, and perhaps even a touch of insubordination."

That's reason enough to fire them, he concludes, "even if the process is difficult." He is absolutely right. But a larger question goes unexamined in his article. Is it too difficult to fire government employees who've been caught misbehaving in ways everyone agrees to be unacceptable?

It's an urgent question for anyone whose preferred policies presume a well-functioning bureaucracy staffed with capable civil servants to oversee and implement them. It behooves us to remember that the IRS and federal, state and local government encompass a lot of honest, hard-working people whose contributions are unsung and who hate scandal and incompetence as much as anyone. But having observed government at all levels for the last decade, I can't help but conclude that the majority of proficient public employees are seeing their agencies and reputations suffer because it is excessively difficult to terminate the worst of the worst.

What caused me to reach that conclusion?

Not a belief that federal employees should be as easily terminated as at will employees in the private sector. Unlike private sector workers, federal employees serve beneath presidents, which is to say, ideologue politicians with a bad habit of installing hack cronies wherever they can. Similar dynamics are often present at the state and local level. In theory, it would be possible to afford too little protection to public employees, which would result in a less efficient government.

But top to bottom, we're far closer to the opposite extreme.

A Los Angeles Times investigation, "Firing teachers can be a costly and tortuous task," provides a number of examples that unfolded at the local level. The article contains shocking anecdotes about how hard it was to fire individual teachers whose cartoonish misdeeds are detailed. The most alarming line states, "Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can't teach is rare."

That's at one of America's biggest school districts.

The UC police officer caught on camera pepper-spraying student protesters is an instructive example at the state level. I wrote last year about his long, lucrative goodbye: "As of 2010, Lt. Pike's salary was listed at $110,243.12. Using that figure as an approximation of how much he was compensated this year (note we're excluding benefits and pension) think about what that means: by my calculation, he spent 256 days on paid leave. That's roughly $77,170 in salary that taxpayers paid him, getting nothing in return. Is that a prudent way to spend public resources? Or would it make more sense to have a system where Lt. Pike could have been publicly fired by UC Davis months sooner, upon the release of independent reports concluding that he behaved badly?"

There are many more examples at the local, state, and federal level. None so far has prompted Democrats or progressives to acknowledge that public employees are so well-protected that the ability to run well-functioning institutions is sometimes being compromised. In one way, the IRS controversy is sure to be unrepresentative since it is getting so much more press than almost any other act of wrongdoing by federal employees. But it will afford us a high-profile opportunity to watch the process play out. Politico explains the difficulties involved in firing anyone in the present controversy. Will protections for the IRS employees responsible for this mess wind up making it harder than it ought to be to reform the  agency?

Coming days and weeks -- or will it be months? -- will tell.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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