Jeb Bush on Monday outlined how he would overhaul the federal civil service if he is elected president, including a proposal to transform the pay raise system for all federal employees.
Speaking at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., the former Florida governor said the current practice of awarding the approximately 2.1 million federal employees an across-the-board pay raise each year should be done away with. Billed as a policy address to spell out his economic agenda, Bush detailed the importance of modernizing what he called an outdated federal personnel system.
Bush said the civil service, like much of federal government, operates problematically without anyone “stopping to ask why.”
He added: “It’s a system in the old ways, rule by inertia and unaccountable to the people. With more than 2 million people on the federal payroll, these programs and these problems carry a heavy cost, and a few serious reforms will go a long way.”
The first reform of a theoretical Bush administration would be to institute a federal hiring freeze. Over the next five years, Bush said with a smile on his face, it is a “fairly safe bet” that not everyone who retires needs to be replaced. Therefore, he explained, his administration would fill just one out of every three vacancies created by departing federal workers. The plan echoes the one outlined in the budgets of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which were twice approved by Republicans in the House.
Like the Ryan budget, Bush would make exceptions for national security positions. He said the strategy would allow for a 10 percent reduction in the size of the federal workforce within five years. Coupled with other reforms, however, Bush said he would slash more than 10 percent of the workforce within his first term and save “tens of billions of dollars without adding to unemployment.”
Bush called the current personnel system a “relic of the 1970s” under the Jimmy Carter administration, which “didn’t have the taxpayers’ interest foremost in mind.”
“The whole idea of management is to reward good performance and make the best the standard,” Bush said. “And that’s not the system we have in Washington, D.C., right now.”
The two-term governor’s next significant reform would be to undo the notion of rewarding “longevity instead of performance.” He said federal employees earn, on average, $1,500 more in annual salary than their private sector counterparts, and $16,000 more in benefits.
The private-federal pay gap has long been disputed, with conservative groups finding feds earn more than their private sector peers, federal employee groups finding non-public employees earn more, and the non-partisan Government Accountability Office concluding there was no clear way to make the determination.
Regardless of that debate, Bush said the current pay system does not provide the proper incentives to “bring out the best” in public servants or to improve the morale of the federal workforce.
“Just like in the real world, compensation should depend on the type of work, and the quality of the work,” Bush said.
To fix that issue, Congress and the White House should no longer approve across-the-board pay raises, he said. Instead, Bush said the government should move to a merit-based pay system. Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, oversaw moving the Senior Executive Service to a pay for performance system.
“If we respect and recognize skill and dedication when we see them,” Bush said, “then I promise you we'll see a lot more excellence in the ranks of civil service and we’ll attract new talent as well.”
Additionally, Bush proposed giving bonuses to managers who identify ways to cut spending at their agencies, similar to a proposal put forward by another 2016 Republican presidential contender -- Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. -- earlier this year.
“When federal employees are found squandering money, we should call them out on it,” Bush said. “And when they find ways to save money, we should reward them.” Bush noted he instituted a program while governor of Florida, the Davis productivity awards, to that effect. Employees that find ways to “shrink government” deserve bonuses, he said.
The third tenet of Bush’s civil service reforms, which he called “long overdue,” would make it easier to fire federal workers. Bush did not lay out specifics of which civil service laws he would attempt to change, but did promise to maintain “civil rights and whistleblower protections.” Otherwise, he said, the time it takes to “remove an unproductive employee should be weeks, rather than years.”
“There are a lot of exemplary employees in the federal workforce, but they’re treated no better than the bad ones,” Bush said. “And the bad ones are nearly impossible to effectively discipline or remove.” He added that “job security is one thing; job entitlement is another.” Every removal of a federal employee should not be a “federal case,” Bush said.
The son and brother of former presidents hailed his ability to transform the personnel system in Florida during his eight years as the state’s chief executive.
In his first term in office, Bush introduced his “Service First” reforms to remake much of the state’s workforce. Bush successfully stripped Florida’s 16,000 career managers and supervisors of due process protections by turning them into at-will employees. Also during his governorship, Bush changed the policy for “cause” from a specific list of fireable items to the much broader “sound discretion of an agency head.” He coupled those policies with a directive to all state agencies requiring them to issue blueprints for reducing their workforces by 25 percent.
Florida had already ranked 50th in the nation among states in spending in government salaries per citizen, but Bush successfully trimmed the number of state employees by 25 percent within five years.
Bush placed his federal civil service reforms in the broader context of cutting agency spending and reducing the size of government in general.
“We’re going to turn off the automatic switch of discretionary spending increases and weigh budgets only on its merits,” Bush said. “Too much of federal government runs on automatic.”