By now, Republican attacks on public workers have crescendoed from a drumbeat to a steady drone. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decries firefighters and police officers as "greedy," Ohio Gov. John Kasich talks about the need to "break the back of organized labor in the schools," and GOP lawmakers in Congress fall over themselves to attack federal employees.
"Our taxpayers can no longer be asked to foot the bill for these federal employees while watching their own salaries remain flat and their benefits erode," said Rep. Dennis Ross, a Republican from Florida, during a meeting of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, says it's "offensive" to give bonuses to federal workers while others lack jobs -- and indeed, more than a few Republicans are pushing bills that would cut the federal workforce by 10 percent, furlough most workers for up to two weeks, and freeze federal pay raises.
Of course, Republicans aren't blind to the long-term political benefits their agenda brings. Democrats count public-sector unions among their key constituencies; their erosion deprives the party of both votes and organization. But the implications of recent Republican attacks extend beyond politics and into the actual business of governing. The progressive agenda relies, at its core, on a well-oiled government run by smart, competent people. By reducing public employees' pay and benefits and placing a stigma on government work, the ongoing demonization of public workers could lead talented people away from public service and limit the overall effectiveness of government.
Now, this doesn't exactly run counter to the goals of conservatives, who are anything but confident in the government's ability to effect positive change. And to some degree, conservatives have public opinion on their side. According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 26 percent of Americans say they're optimistic about "our system of government and how well it works." Moreover, the weak economy has inspired a right-wing populism that targets public-sector workers for their job security and "unfair" benefits. Sixty-eight percent of respondents in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll would like public employees to contribute more for their retirement benefits, 63 percent want these workers to pay more for their health care, and 58 percent find it acceptable to freeze public employee salaries as a way to control spending.
Other polls show somewhat more support for public employees -- in the most recent New York Times survey, only 37 percent support pay cuts for public workers -- but overall, there is still a fair amount of skepticism toward public-sector workers. The Times captured this well last month with a quotation from one worker in Wisconsin: "Everyone else needs to pinch pennies and give more money to health insurance companies and pay for their own retirement. It's about time the buck stops."
Over the next five years, according to a 2009 study by the Partnership for Public Service, the federal government will need to hire more than 270,000 workers for "mission critical" jobs. As their name suggests, these positions are necessary for the normal functioning of government, and a large number of retiring workers means they'll soon be vacant.
What's more, a variety of federal agencies are already understaffed; in a report released last June, the Government Accounting Office found that the Veterans Affairs Department and the U.S Agency for International Development had been harmed by their inability to hire managers and high-level workers. In particular, the VA had trouble providing specialized doctors for underserved areas in the United States, and USAID struggled to supervise projects around the world adequately. More recently, Republicans have targeted the Securities and Exchange Commission for massive budget cuts that could dramatically increase the odds of another financial crisis, damaging the economy and government along with it.
According to the Economic Policy Institute -- and Republican claims notwithstanding -- public workers are compensated less than their private-sector counterparts, even after you control for education, experience, and other factors. Part of the "deal" for public workers, so to speak, is the respect and security that come with working for the government. In the absence of these, it's not clear why anyone given the choice would opt to work for the government. "The very strong rhetoric that is anti-government and anti-public sector can, over time, have a negative consequence on the nature of the talent available for the government," says Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.
Simply put, a well-run government is integral to the success of the liberal project. When government is effective, the public is more likely to support stronger programs and greater benefits. Republicans know this, hence their relentless campaign against public-sector employees. But liberals should be heartened by the ferocity of the push-back against the anti-union agenda in Wisconsin. If the events in Madison are any indication of the national battles to come, the current conservative action could prompt an equally powerful reaction from the left.