The United States established the Civil Service 142 years ago, in response to the massive corruption that followed from the previous “spoils system” in Washington DC. Prior to that, all federal employees served at the pleasure of the President, and jobs got handed out to those who boosted the fortunes of the party in power.
The result was rampant abuses of power, payoffs and kickbacks, and unaccountable performances at the federal level. It took nearly 40 years to transform the federal workforce into an independent and professional corps, and almost 70 years before Congress formally forbade civil-service workers from conducting political activities, through the Hatch Act of 1939.
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Seventy-four years later, the civil-service system has been exposed as a failure – at least in this administration. Instead of an independent workforce of professionals who implement federal regulation in an even-handed and competent manner, we have returned to the era of partisan retribution and politically-motivated malevolence.
This goes far beyond the simple incompetence of government eminently displayed by the Department of Health and Human Services in its rollout of the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Despite having three and a half years between the passage of the ACA and the start date of the exchanges, the federal and state websites launched on October 1st – and promptly crashed.
Media outlets tried finding someone, anyone, who successfully navigated the system, only to come up with one person who just happened to be a volunteer at Organizing for America – which spent all year promoting Obamacare. CBS News called this a “unicorn” hunt , while USA Today ripped the Obama administration for the “inexcusable mess” and “nightmare” of the exchanges.
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Not that the administration didn’t try to make excuses. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and President Obama both cited heavy site traffic as the reason for the failures, as well as demonstration of the pent-up demand for health-care coverage. That explanation fails to acknowledge that this is not a private-sector commercial web portal selling voluntary products or services, but a government site set up to impose and enforce a mandate to buy required insurance policies. The traffic levels – eight million hits over the first three days – barely surpasses the Drudge Report, and the ACA collected billions in taxes over the last three years to prepare for the rollout.
This, however, pales in comparison to the politicization of the civil service exposed over the last few months at the IRS, and perhaps even more so in the shutdown. In May, the Inspector General for the IRS found that the agency had targeted groups applying for tax-exempt status on the basis of their political beliefs, especially those groups that referenced the Tea Party. Those target lists continued to be used as IRS officials such as Commissioner Douglas Shulman testified to Congress that the agency conducted no such targeting.
Nor was that that the only way in which the IRS scrutinized President Obama’s opposition. USA Today reported three weeks ago that the IRS specifically targeted groups that had "anti-Obama rhetoric" in their literature.
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In one case, with an application from the Patriots of Charleston, the IRS flagged “negative Obama commentary” on their website as a reason to hold up approval for their tax-exempt application. For the Tea Party of North Idaho, “significant inflammatory language, highly emotional language” was enough to start peppering the group with demands to release information on their donors and the companies owned by those donors.
Even this pales in comparison to the example shown by the National Parks Service during the shutdown. There is nothing new about the Washington Monument strategy, of course, which dates back to a 1969 attempt to trim the NPS budget. George Hartzog, then director of the NPS, closed the Washington Monument and the Grand Canyon National Park ostensibly as a cost-saving measure, but really to force the public to pressure Congress to restore NPS funding. Congress relented two weeks later, but Hartzog resigned.
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When the shutdown went into effect last week, NPS reacted not by going off the job or closing national parks alone, but by actively blocking access to areas normally accessible 24/7 without impediment. That included putting up signs and guards at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, despite the fact that (a) the memorial was built with private funds, and (b) there are no gates or barriers under normal conditions at the memorial – nor at the Lincoln Memorial, nor at the Martin Luther King Memorial, both of which were similarly shut down by the National Parks Service.
When people simply moved the barricades to access the memorials, the supposedly shut down NPS arrived on scene to wire them together . When people gathered anyway, the US Park Police arrived on horseback to disperse them. Stephen Hayes asked an NPS spokesperson who ordered these actions, and was told that the Office of Management and Budget – a White House agency – ordered them to barricade the memorials.
It gets even worse than that. Unknown at the time but reported this week, the National Parks Service chased down a group of senior citizens at Yellowstone National Park when the shutdown commenced on October 1st. After informing the busload of tourists, some of whom were tourists from other countries, that the park was no longer accessible, the rangers locked them into a closed hotel for several hours with armed guards posted at the exits. When finally allowed to get back on the bus and leave Yellowstone, rangers stopped the tourists from pausing to take pictures, chasing after them for “recreating.”
That arguably constitutes kidnapping or false arrest, especially conducted under color of authority for no other reason than to score political points in the shutdown. One of the tourists called it “Gestapo tactics,” and an NPS ranger anonymously confirmed this as a deliberate strategy by NPS. “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can,” the anonymous ranger told The Washington Times. “It’s disgusting.”
It certainly is, and it’s part of a disturbing pattern emerging in the second term of Barack Obama. When law enforcement and tax enforcement become rankly political, Americans can no longer trust in their federal government, even when it’s not shut down – and that won’t stop after Obama leaves office, either. We are getting a clear lesson on the risks of larger government and regulatory overreach, and those risks go far beyond incompetence. Let’s hope this serves as a wake-up call – and let’s demand that Congress hold those accountable in the IRS and National Parks Service for their uncivil service.