By Pete Weichlein, Better Angels Magazine
“Let the public service be a proud and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: I served the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.”
-President John F. Kennedy, addressing a joint session of Congress during his first State of the Union Address on January 31, 1961.
“You know, I go to Washington and I see all these politicians, and I see the swamp, and it’s not a good place. In fact, today, I said we ought to change it from the word swamp to the word cesspool or perhaps the word sewer.”
-President Donald J. Trump, addressing a gathering of about 30,000 boy scouts during the Boy Scouts of America’s National Scout Jamboree on July 24, 2017.
Democracy Dies in Darkness, according to the Washington Post. I disagree. We’re seeing democracy’s demise in broad daylight, played out on television, in the halls of Congress, on social media, and via a dearth of leadership that unfortunately has infiltrated both parties. Among the many, many collateral damages caused by our current hyper-partisanship and political dysfunction, killing the notion of public service in the next generation will inflict the most lasting damage to our democracy.
I cannot blame anyone looking for a job for bypassing an industry that is maligned by its top executives, is accused by candidates for office of collecting nothing but lazy underachievers for its workforce, and cannot keep up with most other employers when it comes to competitive compensation. (That last one’s true, actually.) Not to mention volatile job security: at the whim of the top executives (i.e, the President and/or Congress,) the place gets shut down and you’re either told to stay home because your job is simply not that important, or that you have to come to work, and figure that whole “paycheck” thing out later.
If America is “a shining city upon a hill,” then Washington is its city hall, and working here, for our great nation’s government, continues to be an amazing professional path. Public service most definitely still is a noble calling, just as it was for many members of the Kennedy and Bush families. I picked law school in DC solely so that I could work on Capitol Hill while earning my law degree and afterwards. The summer after my first year of law school, I scored an unpaid internship with the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts. The work was as sexy as the name sounds.
Seriously, it was. I loved it.
I came to DC to be a public servant, law school loans be damned. My summer internship led to me working for the same committee for course credit during my second year of law school. After that was no longer possible, the committee offered me a paid part-time position while I was finishing my final year. Upon passing the bar, I became an Associate Counsel with the committee. All my years with the committee, I worked with the same boss and basically the same staff of attorneys. We all were earning much less than our law firm colleagues, even though we worked the same long hours. And despite all that, it was thrilling and meaningful.
We worked on policy, we drafted legislative language, we wrote speeches, we ran subcommittee hearings, we prepped the Senator who served as committee chairman before hearings of the full committee, and each of us felt like we were given an incredible opportunity to make a huge difference. Not every day, not every week, probably not every month. But often enough to feel good about Congress and our little contribution to the larger picture. And for most of my time working there, I didn’t think of myself as an attorney working for a Republican Senator, but rather as a professional seeking the best path forward, surrounded by other professionals from other offices with the same goal, just different points of view. Of course there was partisanship, but usually not at the staff level, and usually more for show than to knock the other guy out.
Then the Clinton Impeachment made its ugly way through the House of Representatives and landed in the United States Senate. And lines were drawn, positions were fortified, collegiality was held to a bare minimum, and any path forward was clearly going to be 100% along party lines. There are probably many watershed moments in recent history leading up to today’s political tribalism, but to me the Clinton Impeachment definitely ranks in the top five, probably even the top three. I don’t think either the Senate or the House ever fully recovered from the new tone and the low standards that were set back in 1998 and 1999. I sought refuge in the nonprofit sector, where, for 20 years now, I have committed my energy and passion toward preaching public service and advocating on behalf of bipartisanship and a better-functioning Congress. Let’s just say that this calling can be challenging at times, since what I thought was a partisan low point in the late 90s is now often thought of as “the good old days.”
One of the projects my office runs is called the Congress-to-Campus Program. It brings bipartisan teams of former Members of Congress together with college students across the country. What we see year after year is that young Americans are as engaged, passionate, and concerned as any generation before them. They care about the country and its future, on issues ranging from environmental policy to health care. They want to do their part of helping move their country forward, and they want their voices to be heard. However, when the conversation between students and former Members of Congress turns from passion to process, the next generation of America’s leaders has mostly abandoned the notion that Washington is the path toward solutions. Quite the opposite, actually: Washington is the obstacle, not the answer.
What has changed over the years is the rise of an extremist partisanship that takes no prisoners, turns bumper stickers into policy, and seeks to continuously malign the other side. With that mindset, a reasonable debate over the size of government has become a rallying cry to blow up Washington and get rid of all the bureaucrats within it. A conversation we should be having about overregulation has morphed into the goal of eliminating entire agencies. And constructive partisan back-and-forth, encouraging a clash of ideas so that the best path forward emerges, is reduced to governing through 30-second soundbites labeling all who disagree as stupid losers.
In this environment, unpaid federal workers needing loans to pay their rent or mortgage for a month because of the government shutdown may seem to be a trifle. But the fact that job applications to some federal agencies dropped by as much as 46% from January 2018 to January 2019 should be a loud and clear alarm bell for those of us who think air traffic controllers should receive proper training, the EPA should inspect the sources of contaminated water, or the Consumer Product Safety Commission should issue recalls of unsafe products, to name just a few instances where government and public servants make a positive difference.
There’s an equally gloomy picture when thinking of public service within the Congressional context. Just as I was drawn to Congress all those years ago because I was excited to work on policy issues and contribute toward legislative solutions, many of the brightest minds graduating from America’s colleges or law schools are looking at the Senate or the House as an exciting opportunity, at least initially. Today’s policy geeks, those young women and men who do find their way to Capitol Hill, very quickly lose their enthusiasm. The average tenure for a House Legislative Assistant, for example, is barely a year and a half.
The number of undergraduates earning Bachelor’s Degrees in Political Science is the lowest in almost two decades. The number of graduates earning Master’s Degrees in Public Administration is the lowest in almost ten years. Millennials make up 35% of the private sector work force, but barely 15% of the federal workforce. The policy geeks still exist, but their numbers are getting smaller, and they find little professional fulfillment in the public sector because of a toxic political environment that not only permeates Washington, but is also on constant display on social media and in print, television, and radio. From a PR point of view, we are doing the worst job imaginable selling public service, and this is manifesting itself in a huge drop in applicants for government positions, and an increase in federal employees becoming career-switchers or early retirees.
On Capitol Hill, while the overall atmosphere remains, for the most part, one of collegiality and civility, the impact of hyper-partisanship nonetheless clearly takes its toll. Thanks to gerrymandered districts where the primary election rather than the general election, determines representation in Washington, there’s little incentive for Democrats and Republicans to work together, find common ground, or seek compromise. The opposite is actually true more often than not: partisans voting in primaries punish Members of Congress who crossed the political aisle and gave an inch. Within this environment, clearly it is both hard and frustrating to do what you came to Washington to do: move the country forward, find solutions to problems, and make a positive difference.
Things do get done in Congress, but unless you have pretty much every vote of your own caucus secured, you need to recruit Members from the other party to move a bill forward. Since that can be quite challenging, legislation that does get enacted therefore needs to satisfy even the most extreme member of your party. Fewer things, therefore, get done, and usually only along party lines. While not a perfect measure of productivity, it is nonetheless instructive to note that the 115th Congress enacted 443 laws, compared to 729 laws passed by the 94th Congress in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, which was not necessarily a time of “Kumbaya” feelings on Capitol Hill. This impression of ineffectiveness is not helped by the media. According to MSNBC/CNN/Fox News, absolutely nothing gets done by Congress, because (insert name of party here) are a bunch of (insert either “Socialists” or “Deplorables” here) hell bent on (insert “destroying America” here.)
Where does 46% fewer job applicants, Hill staff turnover in less than two years, and the highest number of federal employees seeking retirement or job-switching opportunities leave us?
For starters, we’re facing a fairly sizeable brain drain that will be very difficult to overcome. As federal employees and Hill staffers seek the exit doors, we are not onboarding a big enough new workforce to staff all the vacancies created. We’re not just losing institutional knowledge-anyone remember how “regular order” works?- we’re also losing expertise. Researchers who could work for the National Institutes of Health to find a cure for cancer instead wind up taking high-paying jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. Economists who could keep the next recession from becoming the next depression instead work for a major Wall Street firm and help it navigate through a downturn.
The federal government, in essence, is part of the service industry. Sure, we don’t like all of the services – IRS taking our money or the Federal Bureau of Prisons locking us up – but there clearly are essential services that will suffer if the workforce is overworked and undertrained. What was the biggest impetus for ending the 35-day federal government shutdown? TSA and air traffic controllers calling in sick because of the multiple (unpaid) shifts they were forced to work.
There’s no magic bullet here, no easy solution, no admonition to our politicians and political commentators that they cool the rhetoric and be nicer to America’s public servants. The death of public service is a byproduct of what ails us currently as a society: tribalism and partisan groupthink in our elected leaders, who have nothing to gain from changing their ways because we give them no incentive to do so.
Until we have a reengaged electorate that has not given up on its oversight role in this representative democracy, we’ll continue down this dangerous path. I’ll continue preaching public service every chance I get, and in addition I focus my organization’s work on civic education so that we don’t lose another generation that is turned off about Washington because they don’t know what “good” looks like. Let’s help them understand that without public servants, and without political leadership that embraces common ground, there would not have been an America able to defeat fascism and then help rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII, or a space program that sent a man to the moon, or a Civil Rights Act that could bring true equality to all Americans regardless of race. That’s Kennedy’s vision of a “proud and lively career,” and we should work as hard as we can to make this a vision again for young and eager Americans.
Pete Weichlein is the CEO of the Former Members of Congress association (www.usafmc.org), which involves current and former Representatives and Senators – on a bipartisan basis – in legislative strengthening and democracy building projects across the globe, and civic education programs in the United States. He holds two BAs and a JD and is a freelance writer with numerous essays, op-eds and books to his credit. He resides in Virginia with his wife and three daughters.