Federal workers answer to the Constitution.
Every morning on the way to work, I walk across a section of a university campus. On a black metallic fence at the edge of the campus, welded in metal painted gold and soldered into place across the central balusters, is this phrase, in capital letters: "Seek truth and pursue it steadily."
It is a fitting imperative for the college's scholars, as well as for a journalist who sees it every morning. It reminds us that our obligation is not to a particular agenda or point of view, not to our professors or editors, and not to the interests of our readers or audience. The central obligation is to the truth. Discovering the truth is often no easy task, which the phrase acknowledges by encouraging its steady pursuit.
While the phrase is a noble instruction, there's no official oath for college students or reporters.
But when civil servants start a new job, they do something that no one in the private sector does. They are sworn in. They take an oath of office.
As a refresher, the oath is:
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
It is worth reminding yourself every day what you swore to support and defend. You did not promise allegiance to your immediate boss or your political overseers, or even to the citizens whom you serve. You swore an oath to the Constitution. Or, put another way, to the rule of law. Pledging fealty to one's boss would be a much simpler promise. A boss is tangible, someone you can see and hear. Some federal workers at the Veterans Affairs Department, Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration and similar agencies answer to citizens throughout the course of the day, but many others never come in contact with the American public whom they serve. Still, the desires and interests of the people can be easily discerned.
The Constitution, like the truth, is intangible. And it is subject to interpretation. Constitutional scholars have for two centuries wrapped themselves up in ceaseless debates over the meanings of its articles and clauses.
It is thus easy to forget on a day-to-day basis that you took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. The competing demands of your boss, your executive branch supervisors, your legislative overseers and groups of citizens with varying interests can't be ignored, and they can easily cloud your vision.
It's unlikely that you'll wander by the oath of office, welded in gold lettering, each morning. And it's unnecessary to commit the Constitution to memory. But every once in a while, remind yourself that you are not just another worker with a regular old job; you are not there to serve the whims of those around you. You have committed to upholding the rule of law, or at least, in an imperfect world, pursuing its advancement steadily.
Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.