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Inside the work of a neglected fed agency — Nation — Bangor Daily News — BDN Maine

Inside the work of a neglected fed agency — Nation — Bangor Daily News — BDN Maine

Juliet Linderman, The Related Press •
November 26, 2018 2:20 pm

WASHINGTON — Mark Robbins will get to work at eight:15 every morning and unlocks the door to his workplace suite. He switches on the lights and the TV information, brews a pot of espresso and pulls out the first information of the day to evaluation.

For the subsequent eight hours or so, he reads via federal office disputes, analyzes the instances, marks them with notes and logs his authorized opinions. When he’s completed, he slips the information into a cardboard field and carries them into an empty room the place they may sit and wait. For no one.

He’s at 1,520 information and counting.

Such is the lot of the final man standing on this forgotten nook of Donald Trump’s Washington. For almost two years, whereas Congress has argued and the White Home has delayed, Robbins has waited to be despatched some colleagues to learn his work and rule on the instances. Nobody has arrived. So he toils in useless, writing memos into the void.

Robbins is a one-man microcosm of a present strand of authorities dysfunction. His workplace isn’t a high-profile political goal. No politician has publicly pledged to slash his price range. However his agency’s work has successfully been neutered by way of neglect. Promising to shrink the measurement of authorities, the president has been sluggish to fill posts and the Republican-led Congress has struggled to win approval for nominees. The mixed impact isn’t all the time dramatic, however it’s strikingly clear when examined up shut.

“It’s a series of unfortunate events,” says Robbins, who has had a lot of time to ponder the absurdity of his state of affairs. Nonetheless, he doesn’t blame Trump or the authorities for his predicament. “There’s no one thing that created this problem that could have been fixed. It was a series of things randomly thrown together to create where we are.”

Robbins is a member of the Benefit Methods Safety Board, a quasi-judicial federal physique designed to find out whether or not civil servants have been mistreated by their employers. The three members are presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed for staggered seven-year phrases. After one member termed out in 2015 and a second did so in January 2017, each with out replacements lined up, Robbins turned the sole member and appearing chairman. The board wants at the very least two members to determine instances.

That’s a drawback for the federal staff and whistleblowers whose 1,000-plus grievances cling in the stability, stalled by the board’s lack of ability to settle them. When Robbins’ time period ends on March 1, the board in all probability will sit empty for the first time in its 40-year historical past.

It’s additionally a drawback for Robbins. A brand new board, every time it’s appointed and accredited, will begin from scratch. Meaning whereas new members can learn Robbins’ notes, his thousand-plus selections will merely vanish.

“There is zero chance, zero chance my votes will count,” the 59-year-old lawyer says, operating his fingers over the spines leather-bound volumes lined up neatly on a shelf. Inside are the board’s revealed rulings. None of the opinions he’s engaged on will make it into one of them.

“Imagine having the last year and half of your work just … disappear,” he stated.

Regardless of the choke of information piled up in all places else, Robbins’ workplace is remarkably orderly. Three paperweights relaxation on stacks of papers on his desk: a stone from Babel province, a memento from his time working for the State Division in Iraq; a mannequin of the White Home, to commemorate his tenure beneath Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; and a medallion bearing the benefit board’s seal. This job, which pays about $155,000 a yr, “has been the honor of my life,” he says.

In the nook, a potted plant he rescued from a trash can outdoors his apartment six years in the past is now so tall that it’s bumping up towards the ceiling, rising in circles.

He swears it’s not a metaphor.

Robbins, a Republican, was excited when Trump gained the election. The president chooses two board members of his or her personal social gathering, and the Senate minority chief picks a third. Robbins assumed he’d lastly be in the majority after years of serving alongside Democrats, quickly capable of write opinions slightly than simply logging dissent.

No such luck.

Trump was in workplace a yr earlier than he nominated two board members, a pair of Republicans, together with Robbins’ alternative. A 3rd nominee, a Democrat, was named three months later, in June.

Assuming they’d be swiftly confirmed, Robbins shortly started getting ready for his or her arrival, leaving custom-made notes with feedback and options for the nominees based mostly on their distinct personalities and expertise on every case.

He’d no less than impart a little knowledge, he thought.

However months glided by and nonetheless no vote. Robbins stated he was advised the Democrats have been refusing to verify the two Republicans by unanimous consent, insisting as an alternative on a full debate for every. In late September, the Senate Homeland Safety and Authorities Affairs subcommittee that screens nominees advised Robbins it in all probability wouldn’t have the ability to affirm the appointees earlier than the finish of the present Congress. That meant that the complete course of, which usually takes a number of months when there are not any problems, will start once more come January, with no assure the nominees shall be the similar.

Now his pile of personalised sticky notes is sure for the trash, too.

Tall, slim and bald, Robbins is an everlasting optimist. He sees the futility of the piles of paper and empty workplaces. However he’s decided to maintain the trains operating, even when he’s the just one on the journey.

“It’s not like I’m sitting around on the sofa watching soap operas and eating bonbons. I’m still doing my job,” he stated. “It’s only when the agency stops working that people realize what we do and the value we bring.”

“Maybe someday they’ll say, ‘Good old Robbins, he just kept plugging along.’”

Irritating? Sure. However a minimum of it makes for a good story at events.

“When I say to people, ‘And then my votes just disappear,’ the crowd usually goes ‘Oh, no!’” he stated. “And there’s empathy, there’s real empathy.”

The board, established in 1978, is answerable for defending 2.1 million federal staff from bias and unfair remedy in the office. The board handles appeals from whistleblowers and different civil servants who say they have been mistreated or wrongly fired, and need to problem an preliminary ruling by an administrative decide. The board additionally conducts unbiased analysis and writes coverage papers destined for the president’s desk.

Or it used to.

Robbins is fast to level out the staffing disaster started beneath President Barack Obama, again when Robbins’ first colleague termed out with out a alternative.

Others say it’s the Trump administration’s fault.

Trump has lagged barely behind his predecessors in nominating political appointees. As of Nov. 19, he had nominated individuals for 929 positions, in contrast with Obama’s 984 and Bush’s 1,128 at the similar level of their presidencies. Congress has acted on simply 69 % of these nominations, in line with knowledge offered by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group selling authorities effectivity.

Max Stier, the partnership’s CEO, blames the administration, the Senate and a dysfunctional system of appointing and confirming political nominees.

“There are many different flavors of the same problem,” he stated. He cited a number of different vacancies, together with assistant secretary for South Asian affairs at the State Division, deputy secretary and undersecretary for well being at the Division of Veterans Affairs, and the deputy secretary at the Homeland Safety Division, amongst others. “There is so much going on, but the underlying reality is that our basic government is suffering.”

John Palguta, former director of coverage and analysis for the benefit board, referred to as the delay “outrageous.”

“We’re setting a new standard, and it’s particularly severe and unfortunate at MSPB because of the structure of the agency. It just can’t operate. And to let it go for this long, that’s really unconscionable,” Palguta stated. “The administration simply hasn’t done its job.”

Sen. James Lankford, who chairs the Senate House Safety and Authorities Affairs’ Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Administration stated in a assertion he understands the urgency in filling these positions.

“There are over 1,500 individuals waiting for their cases to be heard, but there are not board members in place which means the backlog cannot be addressed,” stated Lankford, R-Okla.

Robbins retains plugging away and the instances maintain piling up.

“We are running out of space,” he stated, shimmying between towers of bins in a storage closet shut to six ft tall. Extra bins are stacked towards the hallway wall and piled up in the clerk’s workplace.

“Any additional cases I work from now on are just, grains of sand on a beach.”