Commentary Magazine


Topic: Public unions

JFK and the Wrecking of the Presidency

The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

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The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Here’s the relevant exchange:

Bentivolio: My question is about self-interest. Do you believe that employees of the IRS can remain objective when analyzing the tax implications of groups and people that want them to lose their jobs?

Koskinen: I think so. I think that they’re professionals, they’re dedicated to–

Bentivolio: I have no doubt in their professionalism. I’m not asking you about that. I’m asking you about their neutrality and how it affects their objectivity. Do you believe that any person can sustain objectivity toward someone that they perceive as a threat to their livelihood?

In fact this is at the center of the scandal with the IRS and others. In recent months, the rise of the “government class” has received its due notice. Jonah Goldberg had an excellent column this week on the “naked self-interest of the government-worker class,” which gets at why this public airing of grievances is so uncomfortable for Democrats. Mark Steyn went further in warning that “when the supposedly impartial civil service uses those powers in the service of the ruling party” we are witnessing something akin to the “merger of party and state.” Others have noted, correctly, that the American presidency has become a bit royal for a republic–though without the nonpartisan class and grace of the queen.

But not nearly enough attention is being paid to the man who did more to bring this about than perhaps any other president: Jack Kennedy.

Kennedy did this in two ways, one of substance and the other of style. The substance was his executive order permitting the unionization of federal workers. It was not the first time public employees were allowed to unionize, but it was groundbreaking at the federal level and it opened the floodgates. In many ways, state and local public unions are more a drag on the budgets that dictate Americans’ tax bills. But federal unions have an important advantage: power.

The power of the Department of Veterans Affairs to stymie reforms goes much further than unionization. But that’s part of it. When the VA scandal hit, there were many suggestions on how to begin to put the pieces back together. The least surprising was reported by the Hill in late May: “The Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal can be solved by giving the department more money, a top federal employees union said Thursday.”

But where was all the money going that was supposed to be helping veterans in the first place? To the unions, as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel pointed out:

Manhattan Institute scholar Diana Furchtgott-Roth recently detailed Office of Personnel Management numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.). On May 25, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth reported on MarketWatch that the VA in 2012 paid 258 employees to be 100% “full-time,” receiving full pay and benefits to do only union work. Seventeen had six-figure salaries, up to $132,000. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the VA paid for 988,000 hours of “official” time in fiscal 2011, a 23% increase from 2010.

Moreover, as Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) noted in a 2013 letter to Mr. Shinseki, the vast majority of these “official” timers were nurses, instrument technicians pharmacists, dental assistants and therapists, who were being paid to do union work even as the VA tried to fill hundreds of jobs and paid overtime to other staff.

Federal union leaders were shaking down taxpayers to line their pockets with money that was intended to treat veterans. The only appropriate response from federal union leaders to this revelation should have been pure, unadulterated, soul-gripping shame. Their response instead was to ask for more money.

The style with which Kennedy helped wreck the presidency was in its self-conscious recreation of a palace and its royal court. Probably the best to chronicle this was Sally Bedell Smith. In her book on the Kennedys in the White House, her cast of characters is listed under the heading “The Kennedy Court.” Here’s her description of the royal atmosphere:

The Kennedys may have been Democrats, full of compassion for the poor and dispossessed, but the image of Jack and Jackie as king and queen surrounded by their court had occurred to many people familiar with the administration. The British political philosopher and formidable Oxford don Isaiah Berlin—a guest at several private White House dinners—saw the Kennedys as “Bonapartist,” finding parallels in Napoleon’s brothers who, like Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general and Edward M. Kennedy as U.S. senator, held responsible positions in the government. …

The columnist Stewart Alsop complained after one year of the Kennedy administration, “The place is lousy with courtiers and ladies in waiting—actual or would be.” As with court life in earlier centuries, the Kennedy entourage made a stately progress: from the White House to expensive homes in the Virginia hunt country, to Palm Beach, Hyannis Port, and Newport—all playgrounds for the rich and privileged. “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said Oleg Cassini, her official dress designer and self-described “de facto courtier close to the king and queen.” “She said this many times,” Cassini added.

What JFK did, then, was to lay the foundation for a federal government with an explicitly royalist identity and a unionized government class with job security but no accountability, and who had the power to disrupt the lives and the rights of the citizens who had other ideas about American democracy. There has been a tendency to romanticize the Kennedy presidency, not just by liberals who miss the monarchical elitism but by conservatives who appreciate Kennedy’s tax cutting and internationalist foreign policy. The nostalgia is misplaced, for the Kennedy presidency was damaging to the American project and we are still paying for it today.

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Union PSA: Show Some Appreciation, You Lachanophobic Anarchists

Imagine, for a moment, an America in which federal workers’ generous compensation and job security were closer to that of their private sector counterparts. Or, alternatively: imagine an America in which there was less redundancy in the federal workforce, saving taxpayer dollars. Or imagine an America in which there was less bureaucratic red tape to be enforced against struggling entrepreneurs or business owners, thus necessitating a less robust federal workforce. Or imagine, as John Lennon might if he were around today, there’s no TSA.

All that probably sounds delightful. Which is why unions representing federal employees don’t want you to imagine any of that. Instead, they invite you to imagine, as their new ad campaign hopes you will, “Life without federal employees.” But they mean, of course, any federal employees. That’s the basis for a renewed effort by federal unions to burnish their image in the minds of the Americans that they believe don’t fully appreciate them. As the Washington Post reports, the National Treasury Employees Union is releasing their own version of public service announcements on behalf of federal employees:

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Imagine, for a moment, an America in which federal workers’ generous compensation and job security were closer to that of their private sector counterparts. Or, alternatively: imagine an America in which there was less redundancy in the federal workforce, saving taxpayer dollars. Or imagine an America in which there was less bureaucratic red tape to be enforced against struggling entrepreneurs or business owners, thus necessitating a less robust federal workforce. Or imagine, as John Lennon might if he were around today, there’s no TSA.

All that probably sounds delightful. Which is why unions representing federal employees don’t want you to imagine any of that. Instead, they invite you to imagine, as their new ad campaign hopes you will, “Life without federal employees.” But they mean, of course, any federal employees. That’s the basis for a renewed effort by federal unions to burnish their image in the minds of the Americans that they believe don’t fully appreciate them. As the Washington Post reports, the National Treasury Employees Union is releasing their own version of public service announcements on behalf of federal employees:

For example, one 15-second PSA says:

Without us, you should be afraid of your salad.
Without us, our borders would go unprotected.
Without us, we would live in fear of a nuclear meltdown.
Federal employees. They work for U.S.
TheyWorkforUs.org

Without overpaid bureaucrats, you’d be mired in lachanophobia if you knew what was good for you. Of course, you probably wouldn’t know what was good for you without federal employees to tell you. The Post continues:

The announcements are being sent to 300 television stations and 1,000 radio stations in top markets.

This is NTEU’s third campaign “and each time it keeps getting bigger,” Kelley told reporters Wednesday. Between June 2011 and June 2012, radio, television and cable outlets ran NTEU PSAs 25,048 times, worth $7.4 million in media time, according to the labor organization, which said 292 million people saw or heard those PSAs.

The current PSAs are available on TheyWorkforUs.org. On the Web site, NTEU asks the public to imagine what life would be like without feds. NTEU also supplies the answer:

“You wouldn’t want it.”

It’s worth pointing out here just how much the union has to stack the deck to get some appreciation. Jews make a blessing on their food to thank God for it before eating; the NTEU wants you to thank a union before fearlessly diving into your leafy greens.

In reality, the choice is surely not between anarchy dominated by nightmarish salad monsters and a bureaucratic superstate that chases off your kid’s lemonade stand. What Americans don’t like about the federal workforce has more to do with the fact that government employees make more than their private-sector counterparts, generally get far better benefits, and in many cases those employees are tasked with putting up obstacles to private-sector jobs. And they tend to think private-sector employees are working harder for less money than public-sector workers.

Americans—even those who support unions—are often uneasy with certain public-sector union rights, like the right to strike. Chris Christie had success in New Jersey by asking teachers unions to pay their fair share—less than their fair share actually: anything at all—by contributing a bit to their benefits, as private-sector employees did. They realize that, as Daniel DiSalvo has written, “In today’s public sector, good pay, generous benefits, and job security make possible a stable middle-class existence for nearly everyone from janitors to jailors. In the private economy, meanwhile, cutthroat competition, increased income inequality, and layoffs squeeze the middle class.”

And Americans are sensible enough to understand the moral hazard in such a state of affairs, where powerful government employees can negotiate from their government employers more and more of the private sector’s money. But even more than the chutzpah it takes for unions to put out ads attempting to shame the public into thanking the unions for taking their money, this campaign is an indication that public-sector unions are well aware of their continued image problem. That they think equating disapproval of their work with anarchy is the way to fix it shows that it’s likely to persist.

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