Often, what emerges from Congress is a parody not only of good government, but of common sense. The chairman of the House subcommittee on the federal work force thinks the feds should actively recruit felons into government employment. "The federal government is one of the places that has not been doing enough to help give people a second chance," said Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill. "We can't lead where we haven't been," so Davis intends to introduce a bill to make the federal workplace more felon-friendly. Never mind that rehabilitation of felons is largely a pipe-dream: According to the Department of Justice, more than 50 percent of convicted felons re-offend. (And that statistic includes only the ones who are caught. I'm reminded of the story about the mother who told a friend her son was in jail for something he didn't do. To the friend's query, "What didn't he do?" the mother answered, "He didn't run fast enough from the police.")
This proposal is not a total loss; it would provide great material for Saturday Night Live, Jay Leno and David Letterman: Picture one of Tony Soprano's ex-con cousins as a file clerk in the Witness Protection Program.
Rep. Davis's brainstorm reminds me of a federal program of about 15 years ago, at which time I was the director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology — a lean operation with a half-dozen professionals and support staff. I was asked by a senior agency administrator to take on an "underprivileged" Washington D.C. high-school senior who would work part-time, her salary paid by a federal jobs program. I didn't really need another file clerk or secretary's helper, and I had selected my existing staff carefully for their motivation and competence, so I demurred. But the administrator pressed me, saying that she needed to place a certain number, in order to "make the agency's statistics look good." Finally, after she promised me a straight-A student, I agreed.
But an A student from a Washington D.C. high school was less than I bargained for. "Mandy" couldn't spell or fill out forms or answer the phone correctly and took an hour to deliver an envelope to another office in our building. She spent most of her office time playing computer games or gossiping with other participants in the jobs program. Mandy's deficiencies were distracting and disruptive to everyone else in the office. The staff's efforts to train her were met with sullenness and "attitude." I noticed that the others in the office began to frown while Mandy was around.
Then Mandy became pregnant. The only difference in her performance was that she spent more time talking on the phone to her boyfriend.
When I complained to our administrator that the experiment had been a failure and that Mandy had to go, she responded that it might look as though I were firing Mandy because she had become pregnant, which would both "look bad" and "compromise the agency's statistics."
I was disgruntled, but I relented.
For another few months, my colleagues and I continued our futile efforts to enhance Mandy's skills. The frowns deepened.
Finally, Mandy herself provided the solution to my dilemma.
One afternoon, my secretary came into my office, closed the door and told me that an audit had revealed that Mandy was sending notes to her friends using our FedEx pre-paid envelopes. I thanked her, gritted my teeth, and telephoned the administrator. I told her that if Mandy showed up in my office again, I would call the FBI and report what the theft of government property.
Mandy was never seen, heard from or mentioned again.
While my experience hardly constitutes an indictment of the entire program, it was not dissimilar to that of many other FDA managers. These kids lacked self-discipline or a work ethic and resisted our best efforts to impart them. They showed no curiosity or initiative, let alone gratitude. Their presence actually detracted from the efficient working of the government (such as it was).
Inevitably, those same deficits will doom Rep. Davis's program, which will begin with proven anti-social elements. Federal managers forced to participate will find, to their chagrin, that many felons are manipulative and dishonest, and that they themselves will be pressured not to evaluate the new employees negatively, because it will "look bad" and "compromise the agency's statistics."
The burden of the Davis initiative will fall squarely on the backs of government workers and managers — and the American taxpayers who employ them. The essential functions of the government — providing national defense, assuring the safety of food and drugs and air traffic, and so on -- must be kept discrete from the parts of the government that dispense welfare. Otherwise, the managers of those at the lowest rungs of the federal bureaucracies will have even less to work with - and our government agencies will become even less efficient and effective.
Dr. Miller is a physician and a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was an official at the N.I.H. and F.D.A. from 1977 to 1994.