It’s been quite a month for Lois Lerner.  In the span of just a few weeks, she’s gone from being a faceless–but powerful–federal bureaucrat, to the eye of a political storm involving the IRS’s targeting of conservative non-profit groups.

But if Ms. Lerener’s name rings a bell, it should.  Many conservatives remember Lerner from her days as an attorney at the Federal Election Commission, where she toiled for many years before moving to the IRS in 2001.  Turns out that Ms. Lerner was pushing a similar agenda 25 years ago, as chief of the FEC’s enforcement branch.  As a former co-worker told National Review:

Before the IRS, Lerner served as associate general counsel and head of the enforcement office at the FEC, which she joined in 1986. Working under FEC general counsel Lawrence Noble, Lerner drafted legal recommendations to the agency’s commissioners intended to guide their actions on the complaints brought before them.

“I’ve known Lois since 1985,” says Craig Engle, a Washington, D.C., attorney who from 1986 to 1995 served as the executive assistant to one of the FEC’s commissioners and later worked as general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I’m probably one of the few people in Washington who really knows her whole career as opposed to those who have come across her lately.”

Engle describes Lerner as pro-regulation and as somebody seeking to limit the influence of money in politics. The natural companion to those views, he says, is her belief that “Republicans take the other side” and that conservative groups should be subjected to more rigorous investigations. According to Engle, Lerner harbors a “suspicion” that conservative groups are intentionally flouting the law. 


Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard has documented what he calls Lerner’s “politically motivated harassment” of the Christian Coalition. At her direction, the FEC in 1994 sued the group in the largest enforcement action in history, accusing it of “expressly advocating” the election of Republican candidates. In a deposition, FEC lawyers asked Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North whether and why the former Southern Baptist minister Pat Robertson was praying for him and why he thanked Robertson in a letter for his “kind regards.” Five years later, in 1999, the group was cleared of any wrongdoing. 

Not long after the Christian Coalition was finally cleared, Ms. Lerner was on her way to the IRS, which (apparently) offered new opportunities to push her same agenda, culminating in the recent harassment and bureaucratic persecution of tea party groups and other conservative organizations.  

So what can be done about the Lois Lerners of the world?  Not much, according to Daniel Foster, who has a companion piece currently posted at NRO.  As a career civil servant, individuals like Lois Lerner are just about impossible to fire, as he reminds us.  

Statistically speaking, the firing of a federal employee is a rare event. A Cato Institute study showed that in one year, just 1 in 5,000 non-defense, civilian federal employees was fired for cause.

A widely cited analysis by USA Today found that in FY 2011, the federal government fired just 11,668 out of 2.1 million employees (excluding military and postal workers). That’s a “separation for cause” rate of 0.55 percent, roughly a fifth the rate in the private sector.

And the firing of employees who fit Lerner’s profile is rarer still. Lerner is very much a “white-collar” employee, and the same analysis found that blue-collar employees (such as food-service workers) were twice as likely to be fired. Lerner is a twelve-year vet at IRS, and before that was associate counsel at the Federal Elections Commission for many years. But fully 60 percent of federal employees fired were in their first two years on the job. Lerner has averaged $185,000 in salary from 2009 to 2012, but only 0.18 percent of federal employees making more than $100,000 were let go for cause. Most relevant of all, Lerner is a lawyer, and just 27 of the government’s 35,000 lawyers lost their jobs in 2011 — six fewer than left federal employment via the Big Sleep.    

Late today, it was announced that Lerner has been placed on administrative leave.  That means she’ll be collecting her yearly pay of $180,000 at home for at least a few months.  Incidentally, no one knows exactly how many federal employees are in this status at any given time, but the paid vacation can be rather lengthy.  In 2012, the Washington Post detailed the status of an inspector general at the National Archives, who had been accused of misconduct by a subordinated.  As the paper reported at that time, the IG’s faced an extended period in highly-paid limbo because the special panel that investigated complaints against departmental IGs met only four times a year. 

And what if Ms. Lerner is indicted–and convicted–in federal court?  Even then, there’s a strong chance she’ll retain her federal pension.  Consider the case of Darleen Druyun, the Air Force’s former senior civilian acquisition official.  In 2005, Ms. Druyun was sentenced to nine months in prison for passing information on a competitor’s bid to Boeing, the company she joined after retiring from civil service.  Despite her federal conviction, Druyun retains her federal retirement benefits, based on her “retirement” before going to prison, and years of honorable service prior to her sentence. 

So, if Lerner finds herself facing a trial and possible jail time, she will simply retire before her case goes to court.  Her benefits will be in place during legal proceedings, and will continue–even if she is convicted.  In fact, there are several federal pensioners who are currently guests of Uncle Sam, including disgraced former Representatives Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) and William Jefferson (D-LA).  Cunningham is actually double-dipping, collecting both a military pension (he is a retired Navy pilot and Vietnam figher ace), along with his Congressional retirement benefits.  Jefferson’s retirement check is also rolling in, while he serves a 10-year sentence on corruption charges.  Obviously, Congress operates under a different set of rules, but you’ll find several former federal employees who are currently in prison, but are still receiving pension benefits.   

Needless to say, any sort of action against Ms. Lerner could take years, so she’ll remain on the IRS payroll while the legal and administrative processes slowly grind along.  If it’s any consolation, ideologues like Lerner remain a minority–but they tend to gravitate towards high-paying (and highly influential) positions.  Far more numerous are the career “civil servants” who are incompetent, lazy, or both.  

I know; I met plenty of them during my service as a military officer, and later a defense contractor.  Some of the biggest slugs were encountered during my tenure at an intelligence agency.  Our building was literally populated with senior civilians (GG-13/14/15s) who were more concerned about their professional advancement–and building their bureaucratic empires–than accomplishing the unit’s mission.  

One of the consummate operators in the organization was a woman (GG-14) who ran a specialized analysis division.  She had been in the building almost 30 years; in fact, it was the only place she ever worked.  Her father, a former senior civilian in the building, helped her secure an entry-level job fresh out of college, despite (by her own admission) a fondness for recreational drugs and “wild times” as a university student.  Later, a messy affair with a co-worker wrecked her first marriage, but her security clearance was never in jeopardy, and she kept climbing the ranks.  

By the time I met her a decade ago, she had carved out a nice little empire, supervising a dozen staffers and managing a travel budget that totaled more than $300,000 a year.  Analysts who worked for the woman told me that most of that money covered travel by the GG-14 and her deputy.  The supervisor enjoyed trips to Europe; she spent three years working on an unclassified threat guide with our “NATO” partners that was virtually useless to the operational community, but it guaranteed her regular flights to the continent, including one $5,000 trip to Norway.  Her assistant once bragged about being “TDY” six weeks in a row, and routinely buttonholed co-workers about sightseeing opportunities at his various destinations.  

As you might expect, the amount of work produced by this “team” was meager, at best.  One analyst told me his annual “production plan” amounted to five items.  That didn’t mean he had to generate five major studies or analyses; he could simply contribute a few paragraphs to the work of another analyst and that counted.  So did contributions to products from other intel organizations.  But, in the finest civil service tradition, no one was checking the annual output, so as long as the analysts showed up and pretended to work, everything was fine, and most of these slugs, led by their esteemed supervisor, collected annual bonuses for their “performance.”  

In fairness, there are hard-working civilians in the federal workforce, but in my experience, they are few and far between.  A friend of mine spent several years in the education and training directorate at Air Force Material Command Headquarters at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH.  One of their staffers was a GS-14, nearing 40 years of federal service.  However, this particular individual had stopped performing useful work years earlier, but no one was willing to go through the gymnastics required to discipline–let alone, dismiss–this federal gold brick.  

Finally, the director hit on an idea.  Since the non-performing GS-14 was often observed reading at his desk, he was assigned to read (and review) new books on education and training techniques and their potential applicability to the Air Force.  So, at annual salary of more than $100,000 a year, the U.S. taxpayer got the highest-paid book reviewer this side of The New York Times.  I have no idea if “the reader” (as he was known) is still on the federal payroll.  The Navy reportedly has a civil service employee in his 80s, with no plans to retire.  The longest-tenured federal worker (that we could find) spent 71 years working for the Department of Agriculture before moving on to that big bureaucracy in the sky back in 2009.  

So that’s your federal workforce.  The ideologues like Ms. Lerner are bad enough, but when you factor in all of the deadbeats, sycophants, crooks, empire-builders and the rest, you can see why our government is a mess.  And that doesn’t include the folks at the top of the steaming pile, our elected leaders, the same bunch Mark Twain once referred to as “America’s native criminal class.”  

Maybe it’s time to bring back the Spoils System.