Question: What is the first task that newly-hired U.S. federal employees perform when they show up for their first day of work? Is it the selection of a healthcare and/or retirement plan? Is it the placing of the coat rack or the adjusting of their chair? Is it the review of the “Employee Handbook” which details the duties and responsibilities of one’s new position? Or is it the selection of a password for their desktop computers and the establishment of their voicemail accounts?
Answer: It is none of those things. The very first task of any new federal employee is a swearing of an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution before a designated employee whose responsibility it is to administer and hear that oath. It is the exact same oath of office a newly elected president, vice president or Supreme Court justice takes. It is not an empty gesture, nor may it be taken lightly or disregarded for expediency’s sake. Depending on the level of the employee’s position, it is often done in front of family members and friends. It is never to be taken lightly, and as far as the law is concerned, it is an oath, a binding legal gesture and a promise to perform one’s duties to the best of one’s abilities. As far as I know, it cannot be untaken, nor does it ever expire at a specific time or place. When an active federal employee resigns from federal service, there is absolutely no ceremony to take the oath back.
In exchange for this promise, the federal government also has responsibilities towards their employees. The unspoken requirement is that such employees are to be treated with respect, given the same opportunities for elevation and promotion given to those in private sectors and to see to it that they are supported for giving their best years and brightest abilities and opinions without taking away their rights to Constitutional protections, even though federal employees do not have the same rights as those in private work situations. For example, federal employees may not strike for better working conditions. They have stronger ethics rules and regulations to adhere to than those in private employment and the implication is always there that their behavior reflects on the federal government as a whole. There is a kind of military precision to the tasks given to all federal employees. And there is a definite chain of command.
Contrary to popular myth, federal employees may be fired for failing to live up to their clearly delineated duties and responsibilities. This old bugaboo is a relic of the Franklin Roosevelt administration where federal employees were considered Depression-proof and therefore, un-fireable. At a time of widespread unemployment, this myth of the Teflon-coated federal worker made non-federal employees resentful. Teddy Roosevelt had cleaned house during his administration, so his cousin only had to enforce the changes that Teddy enacted which included new regulations about nepotism and ethics.
In exchange for accepting one’s duties in federal service, the federal government is supposed to pay that employee for his or her work. No one in the private sector would think of working for free, but every time the federal government and its workforce are not treated with respect by the responsible budgeting party, the U.S. Congress, that promise is being violated. Each federal agency or department has its own budget requirements and submits its own budget for approval by Congress. No one really gives this much thought or care, unless a sitting congressman or congresswoman has many federal employees within their constituency.
What is sad and ultimately manipulative and morale-crushing about this system is that many folks on Capitol Hill have politicized the federal employee. What they fail to grasp is that they themselves are also federal employees. Their staff are all federal employees. Their cafeteria is staffed by federal employees. The airplanes and trains and cars they ride in during their holidays (and no one in federal service has as many days off each year as a sitting congressman or congresswoman) are regulated by the government. All air traffic controllers are federal employees. Airlines may make rules governing air travel, but they are regulated by the federal government to ensure public safety. In the event of a natural disaster, the government employees are some of the first on the scene. They keep our drinking water, air and soil safe to drink and farm. They see to it that retirees in the private sector get their social security checks each and every month. They manage the courts for the entire country and they have intelligence services worldwide to keep Americans safe at home and abroad.
There is nothing federal government employees cannot do. And Congress has as part of its mandate to see to it that the public is secure and this cannot be done without the valuable assistance of millions of federal employees, past and present. If federal workers are to be used as nothing more than political footballs, then none of the best and brightest future workforce will want to work for the federal government and this is the biggest tragedy of all.