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This week, nearly everyone is paying tribute to the late President Ronald Reagan – from Bill Clinton to John Kerry to Jimmy Carter.

But words are not enough for the Gipper.

If we really want to honor the man of principle, the man who cared deeply about the issues of the day and the man who believed in actions, not just words, we should pay tribute by learning from his example and enacting policies that will strengthen his legacy in American history.

I have an idea.

Let’s fire some federal government employees.

Let’s not just give them a day off Friday.

Let’s remove them from the payrolls permanently.

One of Reagan’s most controversial – and effective – actions as president was to fire air-traffic controllers who went out on strike illegally and threatened the security of America’s traveling public. It was a bold move. And like so many bold moves of the Reagan administration, it never had to be repeated. People learned Reagan meant business.

But our problem in federal employment goes much deeper than the occasional extortion attempt by workers.

There is simply no accountability for government employees. Once they have a job, it’s practically a job for life. Almost no one ever gets fired from a federal government job. The statistics are staggering.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, only one in 5,000 non-defense workers get fired annually for poor performance.

From 1984 through 2001 – a period of 17 years – of 28,000 employees in the State Department, only six were fired for poor performance. Yet, I think we could safely eliminate the entire department and not lose a step as a nation.

Only one person was fired from the entire Education Department in 2001. Only two were fired in the entire Transportation Department that year. Only two were fired from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In all the federal bureaucracies combined in 2001, only 434 employees were fired – and that was higher than the annual average. That 434 figure represents a negligible 0.02 percent of all federal government employees.

Not only does it take heroic action by managers to fire federal employees, there are also hardly any incentives for good performance.

A study by OPM concluded that “the federal white-collar pay system sends and reinforces the message that performance does not matter.”

There is bipartisan agreement that this firing rate is bad policy. President Bush’s administration wants to make it easier to get rid of bad employees. When Al Gore was reinventing government as vice president, he, too, sought to “reduce by half the time required to terminate federal managers and employees for cause.”

According to a Cato Institute study in 2002, most managers just try to work around bad employees or try to reassign them to other groups. OPM surveys consistently find that managers think “procedures dealing with poor performance are too complicated, time consuming, or onerous.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could seize on the bipartisan political camaraderie in Washington this week to institutionalize some real fundamental changes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we paid tribute to Ronald Reagan in a meaningful way? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we actually tamed the beast of the federal government the way the late president envisioned?

By the way, President Bush doesn’t need congressional action to make such changes in the executive branch of government. He can do that with a stroke of the pen. That’s what executive orders are legitimately defined to do. While executive orders have been misused by other presidents to hijack legislative authority, they can be legitimately used to change the way the executive branch does business.

President Bush can create a great memoriam for Ronald Reagan with a stroke of the pen – one that will do what the late great America leader strived to do in his tenure in the White House: curtail abuse of taxpayers, make the government more accountable and responsive to the people and bring some common sense to Washington.


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