Senior federal executives, we now know, comprise a bipartisan whipping boy.
The White House has canceled this year’s Presidential Rank Awards, using the mechanism of a “recommendation” from the Office of Management and Budget. The same thing happened in 2013 under the Obama administration. Trillion dollar deficits seem to trigger this response regardless of who is in the White House.
An OPM policy advisor lamely cited “the federal government’s ongoing mission critical efforts to reopen the U.S. economy and government offices,” and “the financial strain facing many Americans during this time.”
The cancellation prompted the interim president of the Senior Executives Association, Bob Corsi, to remark that it perpetuates the notion of a workforce of faceless bureaucrats.
In the current vernacular, I’ll unpack this for you:
Note that the Rank Awards, and the associated Distinguished Rank Awards, have two components.
There’s the award itself, the fact of recognizing excellent performance and public service. The Presidential Rank Awards, or PRAs, go to only 1% of the Senior Executive Service in a given year. Nominees are made by agency heads. A committee of non-government types evaluates, and the White House makes the final selections. There’s a bit of a black box quality to it, but each year when the awards come out, people who watch these things tend to say, “Oh yeah, they are good people.”
And then there’s the nice cash bonus that goes with them. PRA winners get 35% of their pay — a prize Congress established more than 20 years ago to replace fixed awards of $20,000. At the SES pay levels, then, the prizes can range to $60,000 or so. To a working fed, that’s real money. Not like the $3 million the chief executive of Neiman Marcus got just before the retailer declared bankruptcy, of course. But real money nonetheless.
A “faceless bureaucrat” from the Justice Department, attorney Henry Hobbs, is challenging the Neiman Marcus bonus bonanza in bankruptcy court.
I can understand, if not necessarily agree with, the notion that nice bonuses might be perceived as out-of-touch during the pandemic-induced economic crash. You could argue, people might cheer on the prizes if they know how hard the PRA and MRA awardees actually worked, and the results they produced.
Probably there’s an electoral calculus in there somewhere. You know, I was in a gas station with 23 other men Sunday out in rural Kentucky. This was during the last leg of a three-day motorcycle journey. An elderly man wandered up to my bug-splattered bike and commented, “I’d be proud to own a machine like that.” What would that Kentucky gentleman think about a distant government mucky-muck getting a $60,000 bonus, I imagine the calculus goes. Some rural people may lack wealth, but that doesn’t mean they lack discernment and understanding.
So let’s say, for argument, the “optics” — a Washington weasel word — of SES bonuses are bad this year. What about the recognition part of the program?
If anything, amid adversity is the worthiest time to recognize excellent performance. Not everyone is the civilian equivalent of Audie Murphy, but the current year has turned into something of a horror show, no less so for leaders whose operations were tested by the unusual conditions. The career executives didn’t create the pandemic or the responses to them, but they’ve had to operate under or in spite of them.
I was about to say, canceling the awards therefore sends the wrong message. But what I mean is, canceling them is just plain wrong. It was wrong when the Obama administration did it, and it’s wrong of the Trump administration. If anything, it looks not like austerity but rather like spitefulness. Spite may not be the motivation of the cancelers, but that’s the “message” they’re actually sending.
A better approach: Proceed with the awards and delay the prizes until the nation is fully re-opened. In the meantime give the recipients a placeholder plaque or Lucite doodad. Given the pandemic, no Mayflower Hotel ceremonies would take place. I know, sounds lavish. As the host of the PRA ceremonies the past couple of years — a duty I’ve greatly enjoyed doing — I can tell you that while the Mayflower has a very nice ballroom the PRA awards are nice, neither extravagant nor lush. The niceties of in-person proceedings wouldn’t happen this year anyhow.
The White House won’t rethink this one, but it should.