Powerful, Unaccountable Senior Executive Service Calls for SOS from Taxpayers

“Did you know that the top-level bureaucrats who are doing the most to increase the negative impact of federal government spending cuts to the American people are in line to get big bonuses this year?” That was the intrepid Craig Eyermann back in 2013, in his sole post on the federal Senior Executive Service. This elite outfit was wasteful and redundant, right from the start. 

The SES began during the Carter administration’s Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 as a response to the “moral and management failures of Watergate and Great Society program implementation.” The response was to create another bureaucracy more powerful than the others, “a cadre of high-level managers in the government.” Three years later, Karlyn Barker of the Washington Post noted that the SES wasn’t working as intended, and SES bosses complained about their pay.

In 2013, as Craig noted, SES bosses “received more than $340 million in bonuses from 2008 through 2011. The bonuses came on top of annual salaries that ranged from $119,000 to $179,000.” It wasn’t clear if the bonuses were tied to performance. 

An SES report for 2015 charts salaries, ethnicity concerns, age trends and such, with no assessment of efficiency at streamlining the bureaucracy. As the report notes, the SES cadre boasted 217 members in the army, 318 in the Navy, 179 in the Air Force, 473 in the Department of Defense, 594 at Homeland Security, and 786 at the Department of Justice. “All other” federal agencies accounted for 1,785 SES members, with a grand total of 7,791. 

Despite that influence, by 2016 the SES remained “fairly obscure,” as Nora Kelly Lee explained in the Atlantic. “Poor leadership can result in mission failure,” she wrote, “a demoralized workforce, tarnished agency reputation, and public distrust of the agency or government as a whole.” That was from a report of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, created by the same 1978 Carter-era civil-service “reforms” and functioning as “an independent quasi-judicial agency in the Executive Branch that serves as the guardian of Federal merit systems.” 

As Kelly Lee explains, the MPPB report “credits the best career senior executives with improving national security and saving taxpayers billions of dollars,” with neither claim outlined in detail. The SES is clearly failing at its appointed tasks, but that leaves the political questions raised at its creation. 

Rep. Herb Harris, Virginia Democrat, warned that the SES will “open the door to politicization.” As the Office of Personnel Management helpfully explains, the government sets the political agenda and “members of the SES translate that political agenda into reality.” So Rep. Harris was right. The powerful, politicized SES is also wasteful and unaccountable to taxpayers. 

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
Beacon Posts by K. Lloyd Billingsley | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst
  • Beyond Homeless
  • MyGovCost.org
  • FDAReview.org
  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org