News & Politics

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Top. Men. (AP Photo/Juliet Linderman)

And if you get it, won’t you tell me how?

Mark Robbins gets to work at 8:15 each morning and unlocks the door to his office suite. He switches on the lights and the TV news, brews a pot of coffee and pulls out the first files of the day to review.

For the next eight hours or so, he reads through federal workplace disputes, analyzes the cases, marks them with notes and logs his legal opinions. When he’s finished, he slips the files into a cardboard box and carries them into an empty room where they will sit and wait. For nobody.

He’s at 1,520 files and counting.

The tone of this story seems to imply that, gee, it’s too damn bad that the ogre Trump hasn’t appointed anybody else to the hitherto-unknown Merit Systems Protection Board, although to his credit Robbins — whose term will soon be up — doesn’t do that. Still, what would a government job be worth if it was literally worthless?

Robbins is a member of the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial federal body designed to determine whether civil servants have been mistreated by their employers. The three members are presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed for staggered seven-year terms. After one member termed out in 2015 and a second did so in January 2017, both without replacements lined up, Robbins became the sole member and acting chairman. The board needs at least two members to decide cases.

That’s a problem for the federal workers and whistleblowers whose 1,000-plus grievances hang in the balance, stalled by the board’s inability to settle them. When Robbins’ term ends on March 1, the board probably will sit empty for the first time in its 40-year history.

Robbins is a one-man microcosm of a current strand of government dysfunction. His office isn’t a high-profile political target. No politician has publicly pledged to slash his budget. But his agency’s work has effectively been neutered through neglect. Promising to shrink the size of government, the president has been slow to fill posts and the Republican-led Congress has struggled to win approval for nominees. The combined effect isn’t always dramatic, but it’s strikingly clear when examined up close.

What’s strikingly clear is that Trump is doing by inanition exactly what he said he was — or in this case, was not — going to do. The very fact that the federal government needs an “agency” to arbitrate 1,000-plus “grievances” is a prima facie case that it’s trying to do way too much; honestly, the current dysfunction, to use the AP’s term, makes one long for the moral integrity of the spoils system — for ’twas Civil Service that bred the Swamp.

A new board, whenever it’s appointed and approved, will start from scratch. That means while new members can read Robbins’ notes, his thousand-plus decisions will simply vanish.

Would that we could do that a few hundred other agencies and houses of Congress I can think of…