Like many people overly involved with politics, I was posting and arguing on Facebook with friends of varying political stripes while watching the State of the Union address.

One portion sparked a debate. After talking about the legislation that had allowed the reform of the Veterans Administration that had failed to provide proper health care, the president said, “All Americans deserve accountability and respect, and that is what we are giving them. So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

My progressive friends immediately declared that this was code to fire and decimate the FBI before it could finish the Russia investigation. I said that it had jumped out at me, but not for that reason. A lot of the problems with cleaning up the VA, which he had just referred to, hinged on public employee unions. Isn't that what he meant? After all, why would Trump ask for the power for each Cabinet head to fire the FBI?

The last effort to streamline civil service was in 1978, when the classic U.S. Civil Service Commission was replaced with the Office of Personnel Management, which manages human resource functions for the various executive agencies, the Federal Labor Relations Board, which oversees the various rights of (formerly) civil service employees, and the Merit Systems Protection Board, which conducts studies of the civil services, and hears appeals over the disciplinary actions of the others. It's worth noting that the effort to replace incompetent officials resulted in the creation of three new bailiwicks of such officials, with counterbalancing mandates and authorities to be negotiated.

This may not be the kind of streamlining Trump has in mind.

The first part of his plan involves step raises. Annually, an employee gets a raise to the next of 10 ‘steps’ of salary in their job description if they are fully satisfactory. Amazingly, 99.7 percent of all employees meet this definition. By stretching the time for steps from 18 to 27 years, about $10 billion will be saved over 10 years, and that money can be used to fund merit raises instead of automatic ones.

The next part would give the same authority which made it easier for officials at the VA to remove and dismiss employees of the dysfunctional agency to other departments and agencies. The wait for a doctor appointment and other markers have been improving at the VA.

Naturally, the public employee unions have reacted somewhat hysterically, claiming that all the firings will be political and loyalists will be installed, and the appeal rights of public servants will be eliminated. Of course, the Senate has yet to approve a nominee to head the Office of Personnel Management, which is so crucial to safeguarding these rights, and things seem to be rolling along with no employees thrown into the streets, but that is just testimony to the self-perpetuating power of bureaucracy itself.

How many are affected? There were 1.8 million federal employees in 1960. Since that time, with the creation of new Cabinet secretaries and agencies administered by them, the number had grown to only about 2 million in 2017. But during that same time, there was an explosion of state and local employees from about 6 million to 18 million. Much of that growth was due to positions funded by the federal government to administer these new federal programs. The EPA has only 20,000 employees, but 90 percent of their programs are administered by thousands of remote employees who are federally funded. These employees are not part of the federal civil service, and most are not part of civil service in their states either, but are provisional appointments. To some extent, the 2 million are only the tip of the iceberg.

Naturally, the public employee unions – which are pretty much the only unions left these days – have reacted very badly to this, and are crying to their Democratic allies to defend them at all costs, as the loss of a bureaucrat is the loss of a donating supporter. But they may not get the support they feel entitled to. The idea of "draining the swamp" was powerfully appealing in the last election. Democrats may not want to head into the mid-term elections forced to openly defend a largely unpopular group, with voters remembering every attempt to register a car or get through to a telephone line for an answer to a question. The timing of the effort may be politically shrewd, but after 40 years of ossification, it is a necessary task.

— Cynthia Stead of Dennis may be emailed at