From Washington, D.C., comes a new spoils system

  Under the guise of flexibility, the Bush administration is quietly engineering a corporate takeover of government. President Bush has ordered all federal agencies to solicit bids from private corporations to replace 425,000 civil service jobs by the next election. That’s nearly one-quarter of the entire permanent federal workforce.

The National Park Service has been one of the first agencies slated to implement what the Bush administration calls "competitive sourcing." According to agency documents, the plan entails potential replacement of 11,000 employees -- more than two-thirds of the Park Service’s permanent workforce.

Positions now subject to contracting include not just maintenance workers but also park biologists, archeologists, environmental specialists and interpretive park rangers. Once the plan is fully implemented, the Park Service will turn over almost all archaeological and cultural resource responsibilities to private consultants. But in its haste to move the program forward, the agency has yet to assess its impacts on park operations, scientific integrity and workforce diversity.

Newly relaxed rules pushed by the Bush administration also authorize outsourcing even in cases where a contractor costs taxpayers more than a civil servant. Meanwhile, the Forest Service is preparing to contract out timber-sale administration and its entire budgetary staff, as well as significant portions of environmental and fire-control programs.

To do this, the Forest Service is spending as much as $100 million -- 10 times more than what it publicly claimed -- on consultants for outsourcing studies. And all of this money is coming out of existing operations.

That means trail and campground work has been shelved, and it also means that fire accounts have been raided for privatization-related expenses. Not coincidentally, the Forest Service declared in August that it had run out of money to fight fires for the year.

At the same time, the Bush administration is pursuing other privatization schemes:

• Its forest stewardship contracts allow companies to manage forest restorations by also cutting commercially valuable timber ,

• Its Cooperative Range Improvement Agreements give ranchers an ownership interest in fences, wells and pipelines built on federal land, and

• Its Profit Sharing plan allows private companies to earn money from publicly owned resources through bioprospecting and other research ventures in national parks.

Taken together, these plans represent an unprecedented transformation that opens our national parks, forests and other public resources to commercialization.

Two other dynamics are also radically transforming our federal agencies. The first is a rolling repeal of civil service protections. After a bruising battle that may have cost the Democrats control of the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security repealed civil service and collective bargaining rights for the 22 agencies placed under its umbrella.

Now, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is proposing to "transform" the Pentagon work force into a public plantation with discretion to replace, fire or transfer employees. Defense and Homeland Security represent about half of the entire federal workforce. As these two big dominoes fall, other agencies will inevitably follow.

The second dynamic is large successive tax cuts coupled with dramatic increases in defense and security spending that saps the fiscal base for domestic budgets. No-growth budgets in 2004 for environmental agencies will shrink, requiring significant cuts in 2005 and 2006, if Mr. Bush follows the plan of his advisor Karl Rove to seek a major tax cut every year he is in office.

Speaking of Mr. Rove, the political implications of these plans are obvious. Unionized civil servants will be replaced by grateful contractors who will further swell Republican coffers, while Democratic-leaning unions are stripped of members. These plans recall the old spoils system where the incumbent party fires all perceived opponents and lines the pockets of its cronies.

This new spoils system erodes the ability of agency specialists to honestly do their jobs on controversial issues fraught with corporate (and thus, political) pressure. Scientists and managers risk being summarily replaced by contractors. Give the wrong opinion and a biologist might find herself on a new job or laid off. Given that clean air and water laws require public agencies to enforce them, public employee safeguards are in fact environmental concerns. Our natural resources will suffer when the experts are silenced, purged or bought off.

A tightly divided Congress returns in September to decide the fate of many of these initiatives. As long as this remains a struggle confined "Inside the Beltway," without the public expressing its interest in the outcome, the new spoils system will prevail. And the revolving door of money and special interests will spin ever faster.

Jeff Ruch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the director of the nonprofit PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in Washington, D.C.