Trump team punts on personnel overhaul

I’m thinking about making book on what will come first — a new federal personnel system or a new FBI headquarters.

Both ideas have been entertaining Washington for so long , they’re due for Kennedy Center honors.

In its 2019 budget plan, the Trump administration takes on both of these perennials.

Oh, my, what it’s proposed for the FBI!


The Trump administration would tear down the existing building and put a new one on the same spot. That’s more a resurrection of an old idea than a brand new one. Still, given the 10 years of dithering over a new, mythical suburban campus, it still came across as a blockbuster. The structure wouldn’t be as big as what was proposed for, presumably, Prince George’s County, Maryland. So FBI management would still be scattered.

The Washington Post account conveyed horror at this idea. It quoted the outrage of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who whipped up a statement questioning the president’s motives. The story found unnamed “experts” who called its presumptions inaccurate and shocking.

This and other accounts note the FBI on 9th and Pennsylvania is just a short walk from the Trump Hotel at 12th and Pennsylvania. I don’t see the connection. My lunch for two recently at the Trump Hotel came to $130 — hardly the average bureaucrat’s (or radio host’s) typical lunch tab. Sholl’s Cafeteria it ain’t.

At $311 a night on the remainder sites, it qualifies as a hot mattress only for the K Street crowd.

I have no idea what is the best thing for the FBI. But the Trump proposal ensures the debate will roll on and on.

Regarding federal personnel, the administration outlines everything it thinks is wrong with the civil service system. It refers to the system as “increasingly incomprehensible and unmanageable.” Hard to disagree with that assertion.

But it doesn’t offer a plan to fundamentally change it. It recognizes, correctly, that somehow it will have to work with Congress to get after Title 5. Maybe it’s time for a Title 5 Commission, modeled after the Section 809 Panel created by Congress to look into Defense procurement. That group has started issuing its recommendations written in plug ‘n’ play legislative language.

On some points, the administration will find widespread agreement. Maybe the GS system doesn’t accurately reflect how a modern workforce should be structured. Hiring and firing are encrusted with too many rules, procedures and checkoffs. It’s too difficult to hire the best people.

On other points, expect debate. To wit: Federal managers or those with advanced degrees are overpaid relative to the private sector. Their benefits are positively rich compared to those typically offered in the private sector, and employees should pay more toward funding their defined benefit pensions. Federal unions have too much say in everything.

The 2019 proposal also resurrects ideas for nibbling at pay and benefits. The administration would change the Thrift Savings Plan G Fund. It would derive yield not based on Treasury Bond rates but rather on short-term T-bill rates. Annuities would calculate from your final five years’ salaries, not final three. Instead of 10 paid holidays, 13 sick days and 13-26 vacation days, everyone would get a single paid time-off block to use as you please, or as you need. Those pension contributions would start to rise.

One small goody: The administration proposes a $50 million fund to “finance innovative approaches to meeting critical recruitment, retention and reskilling needs across the government.” A new board would manage this fund, and look for ideas from anyone.

As with the FBI headquarters, I don’t know what should happen to Title 5 or the federal personnel system. Every change has consequences, and this is after all the public sector. Yet everyone seems to think it needs fixing. If it started now, a commission could have ideas for Congress to enact just about when the doors to a new FBI building open.

Big if.