Congress pushes government towards a cliff

Those pesky Jeremiahs at the Concord Coalition are at it again. They’re inconveniently pointing out that the nation has once again reached the debt ceiling. Who’d have guessed?

Nothing will happen immediately. Eventually, sometime this summer maybe, Congress will have to act. The Treasury Department will have exhausted its extraordinary measures — like using your Thrift Savings Plan savings to finance the debt. Then members will trade barbs and vote to raise the debt ceiling. President Donald Trump will hold his nose and sign it. No one will do anything to actually mitigate the long term problem, or even talk about it.

Debt growth is accelerating. It grew fast under the George W. Bush administration, faster during the Obama administration and grows even faster still under the Trump administration. Now it’s a cool $22 trillion. Some day the debt will swamp earnest efforts to protect the vulnerable among us, maintain good government and defend the nation.

If the debt is a really big example of legislative dysfunction, then an obscure little board is a small example — small, but telling.

The average American has probably never heard of the Merit Systems Protection Board, which, at the moment, doesn’t exist.  You know it as the three-member panel that hears appeals to adverse employee actions when parties don’t like the decisions of the MSPB’s administrative law judges. Employees and agency management can both appeal to the board. Fundamentally, the board is supposed to ensure fair and legal application of merit principles themselves, a bedrock of the civil service system.

The MSPB hasn’t had a functioning quorum in two years. Just last week the Senate failed to take action on people nominated by the Trump administration. And it failed to take action on a bill to keep the lone board member in place for another year. That member, Mark Robbins, said the backlog of appeals cases will take a new board, if there ever is one, three years to read and decide on.

The rest of the MSPB will continue to function as a small federal agency. But besides lacking an essential appeals forum, the agency won’t be able to issue studies Congress itself uses in oversight and legislation development.

In the grand scheme, you could argue the appeals rights of a few thousand aggrieved feds is not of great national concern. I don’t agree. But the larger point is, this lapse feels like another milestone in a slide towards incompetence at dealing with government operations. You’ve got a 2-million-person workforce that operates under a specific set of statutes and regulations. There’s a board that should ensure those statues and regulations are followed. So doing things right means not letting that board disappear. That’s dereliction.

Members talked about the message the 35-day shutdown sent to public employees. What about not having the B in MSPB?

It’s not as if this is even a political issue. Neither the Daily Kos nor Breitbart, as far as I can tell, have a take on whether the Senate should act on nominees for the MSPB. More relevant, senators from both parties express the desire to have a fully functioning board. So why don’t they do it?

MSPB isn’t the only one. Since the middle of the the second Obama administration, the Postal Board of Governors hasn’t had anything near it’s full 11-member cast. So it’s been operating as a Temporary Emergency Committee with the postmaster general and deputy postmaster general, and two TEC members.

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President Barack Obama sent over names, and the Senate blocked them. Two Trump nominees form half of the four-person TEC. A third nominee withdrew, so seven to go.

Who cares? People peel off a stamp and stick it on an envelope. The mail gets delivered. I have my occasional chat with the carrier working my street. When it snows I make sure he can pull the little truck up to my mailbox. The Postal Service goes about its other business.

USPS operates in a sort of Twilight Zone, as neither a private entity nor a federal agency. It is a ward of Congress, though. Otherwise it would take a lot of steps to shore up its business and its balance sheet it’s not able to do.

Long-extant Postal Service issues linger, eroding its future. If the law stipulates a Board of Governors, maybe actually having one could help. Some people in Congress think mail delivery should be totally a private industry matter. Fine, debate it.

But the way to get there isn’t to abdicate from acting correctly under existing law.

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