Flashback

Capitol Ideas

By From the February 1978 issue

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The holiday season found Washington largely emptied of its busybodies; the bureaucracies ticked along quietly with the high absentee rate customary at that time of year. No one back home noticed the difference. I have always thought that that is why federal employees are not allowed to strike. Some wise old heads at the Civil Service Commission, or some such place, put their wise old heads together and said to one another: If we were to strike, no one would be any the wiser, or any the poorer, while for others life might actually be greatly simplified; therefore, let us not go on strike.

By way of compensation, however, the wise old heads said to one another: We shall pay ourselves at an ample rate of remuneration, and—because we do not wish to be sullied with the contamination of "politics"—we shall make it very difficult for any of our number to be fired. So, in the fullness of time, these things came to pass.

You may not have known it, but federal pay is based on something called "comparability." Government specialists from the Bureau of Labor Statistics set forth across the land each year to find out how much money people are earning in the private sector. Armed with this data, they then return to Washington, and here they reliably find, year after year, that those laboring in the private sector are being paid more than those who work for the government. Federal pay is then increased to make up the difference.

Let us see how this works in greater detail (I am indebted here to Robert W. Hartman, an economist with the Brookings Institution, for these figures). In March 1977, a GS-5 clerical worker was paid $10,677 annually. At that time the BLS investigators returned from the heartland and reported their findings: The salary for comparable jobs in the private sector was $10,100. Hartman comments: "This finding—which a hard-nosed type might regard as an excuse for a pay reduction—was transformed into a pay raise under what is called the government's comparability method.

"How does this work? Hartman explains: "At GS-5, the private sector secretarial wage was combined with technical jobs paying $11,770, administrative posts at $12,346 and professional slots at $13,439, to reach an average survey salary for GS-5 of $10,736."

There you have a capitol idea in action. GS-5s are thus transformed from being overpaid to being underpaid. And so it goes through all the grades, involving mysterious techniques such as the "dual payline process," until it is finally concluded that an "across-the-board" pay increase is warranted, and it only remains for the president to sign it into law. This comes up every October. Presidents Nixon and Ford were sometimes a little tardy, stubborn, or unenthusiastic about signing, but when that happens such documents as the presidential income tax form 1040 are in grave danger of popping up on the front page of an important newspaper. So this year President Carter lost no time in signing on the dotted line just as soon as the dotted line was put under his nose, and now all federal workers are being paid 7.05 percent more than last year.

Beyond the threat of a seeping scandal, there are other reasons why the president, whoever he is, can more or less be relied upon to sign this pay raise into law. There is the danger that if federal workers are not paid more every year to keep up with inflation, they may sullenly decline, in the many ways open to them, to implement presidential programs. Also, there is the danger that they may vote Republican next time. There are 1.4 million federal white-collar workers, and it is a good bet that most of them vote Democratic. Anyway, as a result of the pay raise, the Washington area is now richer to the tune of $700 million a year. The average federal white-collar salary in D.C. is now $20,800. Sticks-dwellers, we give thee thanks.

The theory behind "comparability," of course, is that if people are not offered enough money to work for the government, they will turn to the private sector instead. Are there, then, rows of empty desks in Washington, and recruiting officers almost at the edge of despair as they wait for an applicant to walk through the door? No.

Let me quote from Mike Causey's "Federal Diary," a column for and about federal employees published in the Washington Post. "If you are trying to get a federal job right now," Causey writes, "the odds are 76 to one against you, and getting longer every day....During the first six months of this year, 5,664,757 people—that is more than the total population of either Missouri or North Carolina—tried to get a government job. Only 31,000 of them made it." (Which is a little mystifying, because if those figures are correct, then there are not 76 but about 180 applicants for each job.)

Causey adds this detail: "Federal officials point out that the statistics—the 5.6 million inquiries—represent only people who got through. Nobody knows how many job hunters have been frustrated by long lines or seemingly forever busy telephone numbers, and have given up. They aren't counted in the statistics. "

As an admirer of Causey's column, I was a little disappointed by the following disingenuous footnote: "Nobody knows for sure why there is this big, and growing, upsurge of interest in federal employment. The best guess is that it is a combination of things including good pay, regular automatic raises, fringe benefits and of course, the big item never mentioned in fringe benefits, job security in a very tough market. "Capital, my dear Causey!

Quite often I am asked: What is it like to live in Washington? Two points, both related to the foregoing, come to mind. The first is that, contrary to what many may believe, Washington is a busy hive. The work ethic more than prevails, it threatens to overpower. I did not say that the work done was useful work, mind you. Rather, it is busy and ostentatious. One of the most striking ways of acquiring status in Washington is to make as how of working early and late. The breakfast meeting is the high-status meal in the capital. The reason is, I think, federal workers are paid highly enough to ensure that a good many of them wake up in the morning feeling guilty, which drives them to do something (when nothing might often be better).

The second feature of Washington that one cannot help noticing is that it is a peculiarly somber, serious town. Sometimes it seems that the people in town came here out of a sense of moral earnestness, high seriousness, and civic obligation. The gloomy reformers of government, joined in common cause against nationwide frivolity and profligacy, are here to see to it that the rest of us confess our sins in triplicate; the same tone pervades much of the local news media. It is hard to avoid concluding that many of today's editorial doomsayers would in former years have preached from pulpits.

One reason for all this gravity is to give the appearance of having "policy significance." If you work in the State Department or the Pentagon or, heaven help us, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or in just about any agency, you cannot afford to be lighthearted or the tiniest bit frivolous if you want to get ahead. Try to imagine a SALT negotiator with a sense of humor! No, a serious demeanor is required in Washington. Without it, everyone will know that you lack "policy significance," and that means you are not really earning the high salary generously furnished by taxpayers. You are setting a bad example and will be frowned upon. Solemnity therefore prevails. It comes with the money.

As you can imagine, it is hard to find a funny story in this atmosphere, but one happily comes to hand. Already mentioned in this column, it concerns the federal employee who, divested nearly $900,000 of government money into his own bank account. Actually this marvelous story has a rather sad ending because William Sibert, the perpetrator of the crime, was sentenced to six years in jail for his larceny—quite a stiff sentence considering that armed robbers routinely get probation if they are first-offenders and therefore presumed not to know that it is wrong to threaten an innocent bystander with a loaded pistol. To some of our madcap judges such thugs demonstrate not their own criminality but the viciousness of the society in which they were raised. Poor old William Sibert did something far more reprehensible: He demonstrated the stupidity of government. Slam! Six years for him.

Some new details about the Sibert case came out in an article by Timothy S. Robinson in the "Metro" section of the Washington Post. Sibert, who incidentally was one of those $10,000-a-year GS-5s, was working as a financial assistant in the Urban Mass Transit Administration. One day he simply made out a voucher for subway funds to himself. His supervisor signed it. (History does not relate what became of the supervisor.) Sibert then deposited the check (for $55,916.47) in his own bank account and started to spend the money.

"Then I thought, 'Heck, if you're going to get caught doing it, do it right,' " Sibert told Robinson. "There's only one way—all out!" Within two months he had issued vouchers to himself totalling nearly $900,000. He found that banks would cash U.S. Treasury checks in the tens of thousands of dollars with no questions asked. One day Sibert cashed a $36,000 check and the bank was actually forced to close its doors for several hours while it waited for another money delivery. Here is Robinson's description of what Sibert did with the money:

...he spent nearly $200,000 on at least 12 cars for friends and members of his family and took coworkers to lunches on the southwest waterfront where he would pick up $500 tabs. He also bought a new $60,000 house with a swimming pool and renovated it for $30,000, outfitting it with $10,000 worth of such items as closed circuit TV systems and pink-and-white shag carpeting. In addition, he said he bought a 30 foot houseboat, made gifts of $3,000 or so to women who worked in his office—trinkets such as diamond rings, IBM and ITT stock purchased through his account at Merrill Lynch—and paid $80,000 for a topless bar a block from FBI headquarters.

Sibert had a criminal record, having already been convicted of house breaking (in which no property was taken) shortly after he finished high school. "I don't feel like I've done a crime against the government," Sibert said. "I don't think it's a living thing....The government is not something that has a feeling." Sibert remarked that the government was "inept" to have put so much trust in him—a convict—in its handling of billions of dollars, and "stupid" in the way it has attempted to recover property he bought with the funds. He said a lawyer told him that recipients of presents could not be forced to return them after his arrest. But he said that most of them had been "scared" into returning such gifts nevertheless.

It is instructive to note that Sibert was caught not because the money was missed by UMTA, but because his bank eventually became suspicious about his very high "cash flow" and alerted the U.S. Treasury. Sibert was eventually arrested at the end of a flight from Washington to Las Vegas. Robinson wrote in the Post—and it is hard to improve on this—that as Sibert checked his baggage he "thought he saw several neatly dressed men watching him closely. At O'Hare airport, as he was getting his flight to Las Vegas, Nev., he realized there were too many men wearing TWA jackets for a routine flight. Later, during the flight, he told his seven guests in the first-class section to order a final round of drinks. The caper was up."

Sibert has brought a few uneasy, fleeting smiles to a few faces in Washington, which is more than most government workers achieve. Tonight I shall drink to his health.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).