Obama's 'Firemen First' approach to budget cutting

When I was a kid back in the 1970s, my postal manager father told me about the post office in Baltimore where the mail didn't get delivered. It was a laid-back sort of place, where dozens of postal employees with the work ethic of Seinfeld's notorious Newman whiled away the hours "RIP" (retired in place) until officially retiring from public service. Yet in some ways that post office was the most important one in town. Without that one postal station, mail delivery all over Baltimore would have suffered.

Here's why. Over the years, reasonable regulations to keep managers from firing workers for non-work-related reasons like their political affiliation metastasized into thoroughly unreasonable rules keeping managers like my father from firing anyone at all. The bureaucracy reacted sensibly, by concentrating workplace turkeys in "turkey farms," like post offices where the mail never got delivered. In some agencies, the turkey farm is called "the office of special projects."

Managers like my dad learned that quarantining low performers in turkey farms kept the turkeys and their attitudes toward work from infecting entire bureaus. The very existence of turkey farms kept the rest of the bureaucracy healthy. Moreover, as I found years later during my own stint in government, when political leaders periodically force agencies to cut budgets for political reasons, turkey farms offer convenient targets. Slashing a turkey farm can help appease a new agency chief or assistant secretary eager to make their mark by making government more efficient. "Such a shame," career managers will say, tongue in cheek, "but times are tough, so we just have to do our part by slimming down the office of special projects."

I thought of that recently during the Obama administration's warnings about the depth of suffering sure to come from sequestration. Rather than carving and roasting turkeys, the administration seems to be deliberately targeting the public servants that matter most: meat inspectors, homeland security, and the most visible possible defense employees.

In doing so, the president is employing the "Firemen First" gambit first described in 1976 by the iconoclastic Charles Peters in his Washington Monthly piece of that name. In Firemen First, when a mayor is pushed to cut the budget, she suddenly announces plans to lay off firefighters, teachers and cops. Somehow, filing clerks and other office drones, especially those related to City Council members, are too essential to let go. One of Mr. Peters' real-life examples occurred when the National Park Service responded to modest cutbacks by ending elevator service in the Washington Monument, as if there was nothing else in the entire park system to prune.

Of course, Firemen First only works if the public doesn't know it's a scam. If voters see through it, the Obama administration may get blamed for politically sabotaging rather than sensibly implementing government cutbacks.

In terms of where the money is, it clearly makes more sense to reduce our enormous Social Security and Medicare spending rather than trimming the bureaucracy. Even so, the American people have been cutting back for years, so it's not the end of the world if we public servants contribute our fair share to deficit reduction — starting with the turkeys.

Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu), a former Baltimore resident, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He worked in the federal government in the 1990s.

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