Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) testified yesterday in a congressional hearing about the September 11, 2012, attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans were killed in that attack, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens—the first U.S. ambassador killed by violence in the line of duty since 1979.
We didn’t really learn anything new. We already knew that President Barack Obama’s (D) media surrogate, Ambassador Susan Rice, went on national television and repeated the official administration talking points that were, at best, misleading. We knew that the administration continued to misrepresent what had happened, characterizing the attack as a spontaneous protest rather than the premeditated act of terror that it was, for weeks after they knew better. We knew that the State Department had rebuffed Stevens’s requests for additional security in Libya before the attack, and that Obama did not order a rescue mission until hours after Stevens was already dead. The whole thing is a debacle, and has been mis-handled by Obama and his administration from the start.
Clinton, to her credit, has been perfectly clear about who is responsible for the government’s mistakes in Benghazi: she is. She has been saying so since at least October. Of course the reality is that the buck stops at the desk of the President of the United States—as President Harry Truman (D) liked to remind us—but Clinton has dutifully made the claim that the president is ‘not involved’ in diplomatic security decisions. That’s probably not true (and if it is, it’s frightening) . . . but Obama, for his part, seems to be willing to sit back and let Clinton take the heat so he doesn’t have to.
Here’s what I found interesting: Buried among repeats of information we already knew, Clinton appears to have (perhaps accidentally) endorsed some amount of civil service reform. In the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, an independent review board was convened to figure out what went wrong. Four federal employees were found to have made poor leadership decisions that contributed to the death of those four Americans, and so were placed on . . . paid administrative leave. It turns out that they can only be fired for a ‘breach of duty,’ and under the law ‘unsatisfactory leadership is not . . . a breach of duty.’ Clinton, like her congressional questioners, thinks this is unacceptable, and says that she has “put forth to the Congress and Senate to fix that problem going forward.”
Those of us who have worked for the government, whether as a federal employee or as a contractor, are well aware that it is nearly impossible to fire a poor-performer in the civil service. Strict laws, and even stricter union rules, ensure that even the most incompetent worker gets his regular promotions and step-increases and keeps moving into positions with more and more power. The many qualified, hard-working federal employees who ought to be rapidly moving up through the ranks instead progress at roughly the same rate as their less-qualified brethren. Many of the best workers, tired of carrying the rest, just give up and leave. (Those who stay, on the other hand, deserve our highest praise . . . and our deepest sympathies.) Many of the worst workers, on the other hand, have little incentive to improve. This is not unlike the situation in our public schools, or in any other employment environment (public or private) where individual merit has little connection to the rate of advancement.
So the fact that these four State Department employees haven’t been fired shouldn’t be surprising. Of course they haven’t been fired. The surprising thing is that a ‘progressive’ politician has come out, albeit quietly (and with precious little media attention), for allowing broader leeway in the firing of federal employees when they don’t do their jobs properly. I doubt she’ll come out in support of any ‘radical’ changes to the civil service—crazy ideas like promotions based on merit—but progress is progress.