David Goldman/AP

Why a Jeb Bush Presidency Could Mean Far Less Job Security for Feds

The shrinking government workforce is a "tribute to our maturity as a society," the former governor has said.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla., officially joined the presidential fray on Monday, becoming the 2016 candidate with the most significant track record of reforming civil service laws and protections.

Throughout his governorship, Bush called for government to be stripped to its essential core, and followed up the rhetoric with the downsizing of Florida’s bureaucracy. 

“My hope is that we’ll have a smaller government in terms of workforce,” Bush said at the outset of this tenure, “but a better government.” He has, at other times, referred to government as a “dinosaur.”

In his first term in office, the son and brother of former presidents 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. In his book on the Bush administration titled “Jeb Bush: Aggressive Conservatism in Florida,” author Robert E. Crew wrote that Bush used the agency reduction plans to justify leaving vacancies unfilled. He even hired an “efficiency czar” to ensure wasteful spending was eliminated. As part of the Service First package, Bush allowed agencies to use 20 percent of the savings from a phased-out employee toward boosting the salaries of the remaining workers.

Bush offered a reminder of his penchant for firing government workers last month, when he criticized the Obama administration for not firing more employees at the Veterans Affairs Department in the wake of the waitlist manipulation scandal.

When Bush was governor, he said a smaller government workforce would signify a more mature society.

“I look forward to the time when these buildings of government are empty,” Bush said in his second inaugural address. “There would be no greater tribute to our maturity as a society than if we make these buildings around us empty of workers, monuments to a time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill.”

While the government buildings may have become emptier under Bush, the government’s total footprint did not shrink at the same rate. The two-term governor preached “relentless criticism of Florida’s government and its workforce,” according to Crew, but did not hesitate to contract out government functions.

Privatization became the “signature of his administration,” Crew wrote of Bush. The governor expanded contracted services to include previous government operations such as criminal defense, certain welfare benefits, child protection and the staffing of nursing homes for veterans.

Bush also significantly increased the temporary workforce, employees with no access to health care, retirement or other benefits afforded to career workers.  Even for those in permanent positions, the average salary dropped during the Bush administration while the probationary period for new employees jumped from six months to one year.

The Service First plan called for some perks for state workers. Bush pitched giving employees the option of cash payouts for up to three days of unused annual leave. He also proposed setting aside $40 million for pay-for-performance bonuses, which would have been determined in part by peer -- rather than managerial -- reviews. Under Bush, agencies held performance reviews for employees quarterly rather than annually. Those who faced discipline within the year were ineligible for a bonus.

Bush suggested giving additional bonuses to employees who came up with cost-saving ideas, much like the suggestion put forward recently by his 2016 Republican opponent, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The newest entrant into the ever-growing race for the Republican nomination has faced some controversy in dealing with government workers’ pensions. Bush has been accused of pushing pension administrators to invest with his donors. He created an incentive program for municipalities to give their employees larger pensions, but the expiration of the temporary state-level funding has led to massive unfunded liabilities in some areas.

In his announcement speech Monday, Bush promoted his executive experience as qualifying him for the presidency. He enters the race as the Republican frontrunner, so some of those state-level reforms could end up being expanded to the federal level.