More Firings Needed at the IRS—TSA Precedents

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I’ve watched the congressional hearings on the IRS scandal, and like others, have been appalled at the glib performance of former IRS Commissioner, Douglas Shulman. Shulman isn’t taking an ounce of blame for the mess even though he headed the agency from 2008 to 2012. Dana Milbank reviews his slippery and rather arrogant performance in the Washington Post today.

Unfortunately, we can’t fire the Bush-appointee and Democratic-donor Shulman because he’s already escaped to the private sector. But we can fire other misbehaving IRS workers when we unravel the mystery of who ordered the political targeting.

Politico wrote yesterday that “heads won’t roll at the IRS.” The article is right that it is very difficult to fire federal workers, and I’ve written about the extremely low federal firing rate. The article says that 8,755 people were fired last year. But that was out of 2.1 million civilian federal employees, or just 0.4 percent of the total.

Politico notes that strong civil service protections are a big hurdle to firing. But just as  important, I think, has been the unwillingness of federal managers to put the time and effort into removals. It’s much easier for managers to move troublesome employees off to a quiet office to get them out of the way, or to transfer them out of their section.

Also note that it is the firing rate of poor performers that is especially low in the federal government, meaning workers who are lazy or produce poor work. One barrier to their firing is that managers often give these workers good performance reviews because they don’t want to rock the boat.

However, a larger number of federal workers are fired for misconduct—such as willfully ignoring laws and regulations—and that is what we are talking about with the IRS scandal. Recent incidents in the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration (TSA) indicate that federal workers can be fired for misconduct:

Aside from the thefts, the other TSA firings seem to have been for actions no more troublesome than that of IRS employees. IRS employees were apparently not just failing to follow proper protocol, but were proactively inventing new procedures that undermined fundamental rules for nonpartisan, neutral, and fair treatment of taxpayers.

So far President Obama has “fired” acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, although Miller had planned to retire in June anyway. But more heads should roll in the IRS scandal, and despite Politco’s cautionary note, I’m guessing that they will roll.