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FBI scandal proves we need term limits for federal workers

  • Recent FBI scandal and financial liabilities prove we need to regularly refresh the federal bureaucracy with new workers.
  • As it is now, too many federal workers are unaccountable to the public, have too much job security and get too many benefits
  • Limiting federal government work to four or eight year terms is one sure way to at least partially alleviate this problem.
Metro commuters use the escalator at the Dupont Circle Metro station during a light rain in Washington, D.C.
Ricky Carioti | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Metro commuters use the escalator at the Dupont Circle Metro station during a light rain in Washington, D.C.

The argument for congressional term limits has been around for a long time. Polls over the last decade alone show an unusually steady and strong support for term limits at the 75 percent level.

But the evidence is growing that the people America needs to get out of their entrenched positions in Washington are not only the ones who have to rely on elections, but the bureaucrats who never have to face the voters at all.

President Donald Trump alluded to this problem briefly in his State of the Union address when he spoke about how faith and family are the center of American life and not government and bureaucracy.

That bureaucracy has only been growing for almost 60 years. A recent Brookings Institution article showed how while there are about two million official federal workers on the books, the real number of government jobs paid for and made possible by federal funding is a whopping 18 million.

That's thanks to massive growth in federal agencies who use their funding in part to set up employees officially at the state level or as contractors. But they are all still government workers paid for with federal tax revenues.

"The point is, you don't have to focus just on partisan-laden recent scandals to pull back the curtain on the steady stream of misconduct inside the federal bureaucracy."

18 million is a big number, but real outrage only seems to come from some form of scandal. Sadly, the true depths of irresponsibility and abuse American career bureaucrats can reach has been display in recent weeks as details of an FBI and intelligence community scandal leak out day by day.

No one has been charged or convicted of any crimes yet. But the nation has learned that FBI agents tasked with the job of investigating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's email server seemed to put their own political fortunes before their law enforcement duties.

Those same agents were also caught texting each other about their hatred for Trump with references to some kind of "insurance policy" if he won the presidential election.

This is obviously a bureaucratic scandal that mostly angers conservatives and Republicans. But liberals and Democrats were piping mad and still very steamed at the on-again, off-again, way former FBI Director James Comey conducted that Clinton email investigation.

Comey was officially an appointee at the time, but someone who had spent decades as a non-appointed government worker before reaching that level.

Some still blame him for Clinton's election loss because of the way he so publicly announced the re-opening of the investigation so close to Election Day. One of the people at least partially blaming Comey is Hillary Clinton herself.

The point is, you don't have to focus just on partisan-laden recent scandals to pull back the curtain on the steady stream of misconduct inside the federal bureaucracy. Partisanship had nothing to do with the terrible conditions and inhumane wait times at V.A. hospitals, lavish personal spending scandals, and many other bureaucratic embarrassments we've all witnessed over the years.

But if scandals aren't enough to convince you that something big needs to change, perhaps some harrowing financial facts will do the trick.

America can't afford to pay the liabilities we owe our current federal workers in pensions alone. A Moody's report issued in October estimated that unfunded the liability for federal worker pensions alone is $3.5 trillion. That's just the pensions, and not the health care and other benefit costs.

There's no simple and quick solution for this problem, but there are ways to make things better. Limiting every federal government worker to a certain amount of years on the job would be a good start to avoiding pension and benefit payments accrued over a lifetime on the job.

A better and cheaper idea would be to pay them more in salary for a shorter tenure rather than reward them with a generous defined benefit pension for staying with a job they really couldn't ever lose anyway.

As it is, federal workers have enormous job security. In fact, it's too much. It's too difficult to fire federal workers, even those who perform badly. Firing federal workers involves a cumbersome process laden with appeals procedures and other roadblocks not seen in the private sector. A 2013 GAO report showed that the time period to fire a federal employee can take as much as 370 days.

Pay for federal employees is also better than their peers in the private sector. Even a recent CBO report confirmed that federal workers make about 17 percent more on average.

But why throw out the good with the bad? That's a fair question when we're referring to some seasoned and expert workers who will take time to replace.

That's another area where higher pay as opposed to guaranteed pensions for just sticking around should attract a steady stream of high quality replacements. Demand for government work, even temporary, has generally been strong in this country even in the wake of government shutdowns.

But obviously, people in essential positions needn't be forced to leave until suitable replacements are found. Federal worker term limits needn't be enforced to the minute. The hope here is that by focusing our resources and attention to those truly essential positions, there will be a renewed effort to eliminate those non-essential positions in the first place. During the last shutdown, several agencies deemed most of their workers "non-essential."

Sure, that might only be a temporary designation. But that label should have us asking some hard questions about over staffing. When we get to the point where most federal workers truly are essential, maybe we can revisit the idea of limiting their tenure.

The point is that as much as we want to respect our government workers, they are the ones who are supposed to be working for us and not the other way around.

Getting the chance to serve their country and get paid better for it over four to eight years should be enough respect for anyone. Political appointees may feel the need to be beholden to the politicians who appoint them, but government workers should have some accountability to the taxpayers they're supposedly serving. It is called "public service" after all.

Either way, no net benefits come from a massive workforce that doesn't really have to fear for their jobs, gets paid more than the rest of us, and isn't really accountable to anyone.

That has to stop, and the only way to effectively deal with this problem is to give each and every one of their jobs a real expiration date.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.