An enduring disgrace in stewardship of the federal government is the failure to establish a quorum for the Merit Systems Protection Board. If you agree to these precepts:
A quality civil service system best serves the country, and that merit principles ultimately yield the best civil service;
Civil servants should have a means of redressing their employer; and
Somewhere in the United States three people live who are capable of rendering fair and legally sound decisions on employee grievance cases;
Then how under heaven has the tiny MSBP gone five years without a quorum of board members? The Senate has lots of things to consider. It has heard from nominees over the years but hasn’t acted on them. Perhaps an in-the-weeds board and the 2-million member workforce it serves form a sort of abstraction. Real individuals are easier to see.
Wednesday, two things happened.
One, as our Nicole Ogrysko reported, senators from both parties spoke earnestly of the need for a fully functioning MSPB. Several good-government groups testified in affirmation. This happened at the hearing for the three MSPB nominees put forth by the Biden administration. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has held hearings before, without otherwise taking action.
Second, on Wednesday evening, the ribbon cutting occurred for the Bertie Bowman Building. Tucked into a corner of Alexandria, Virginia between the Potomac River and the Metro tracks, it’s the headquarters of the U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union. The Senate voted two years ago to name the building for Bertie Bowman, but the physical ceremonies were delayed by you-know-what.
Bertie Bowman is the now-famous Senate staff member who, at 90, still works as hearing coordinator for the Foreign Relations Committee. He started in 1944, having run away to Washington, sweeping the Capitol stairway. As legend has it, he’d been promised a job by South Carolina Sen. Burnet Maybank, who subsequently paid Bowman $2 per week.
Bowman’s remarkable story includes the twist that when Maybank died suddenly of a heart attack, he was replaced by Strom Thurmond, with whom Bowman — the fifth child of Black tenant farmers — had a long and warm relationship.
Good for the Senate on honoring a staff member who started serving before most of the senators were even born.
Few civil servants, whether in the executive or legislative branches, will have buildings named after them. Politicians generally name buildings, bridges, Navy vessels and public works projects after themselves.
But the Senate could honor civil servants in the other branch that it delights in overseeing, by getting on with the business of confirming the MSPB nominees. The current crop of nominees appears qualified. I’ve interviewed one of them, Tristan Leavitt, a couple of times. He’s no slouch.
The MSPB question has a practical side, too. Its existence is a statutory requirement. A vacant board — notwithstanding the ongoing work of the staff including the administrative law judges who do most of the work — shows a disrespect for the law. Plus, the board, should there ever be one, will face a backlog of appeals cases that numbers 3,400 and growing. How would you like to walk into a job and have a stack of paper like that greet you?
A word on Bertie Bowman. I hope you get to meet him too. He’s encountered an impressive list of political notables in his time, working for or with them, guiding them by the elbow to the witness table. He’s no accidental Forrest Gump. Rather, he’s an astute observer, both self-confident and reticent. He knows more than he says. He may have pushed a broom at 13, but he went on to accomplish a lot, including stints as chairman of the Senate Credit Union board. And this: His eyes — remarkably large, deep and luminous at 90 — meet your own steadily when you’re speaking with him. I liked him immediately.
The “moose test” usually refers to an evasive maneuvering test car manufacturers use to determine how successfully cars can avoid sudden large obstacles appearing in the roadway. The term was coined by Swedish journalists in the 1990s, where moose are common enough to cause frequent accidents. However, Swedish car company Volvo literally tests its cars by crashing them into special crash test dummies that mimic the size, shape, weight and density of a moose so engineers can improve the safety of the vehicle.