Elizabeth Birnbaum, Director of Minerals Management (MMS) at the Department of the Interior, resigned over the BP spill, in a classic, sacrifice-a-pawn, let-the-heads-roll, political sacrificial lamb ploy that folks in DC have witnessed countless times. Someone had to go. Anger over Obama Administration inaction, coupled with recent disclosures that government employees in the Department of Interior’s MMS division were often watching porn and taking drugs, demanded a head. So, the call went out, and Birnbaum was the sacrificial pawn.
President Obama probably hopes that much of the blame for the poor government response will stick to Birnbaum, whom he implied was responsible for the unprofessional conduct of government employees in the Department of Interior that contributed to the disaster. There’s lots of blame to go around and many examples of irresponsibility and poor decisions within the government.
Still, blaming all on Birnbaum is unfair. Birnbaum knew that there were serious government employee performance problems within MMS with employees caught viewing pornography on government computers, using crystal methamphetamines prior to work and potentially falsified oil rig inspection reports . I bet she even wanted to discipline these employees but was thwarted by the strong protections enjoyed by unionized federal civil servants, where firing a federal employee in one of the many powerful Labor Unions is almost impossible.
Firing a unionized, poorly-performing federal employee is made even more difficult by the Obama Administration's pro-union tilt and by their decision to support the agenda of big Labor. Elizabeth Birnbaum may have wanted to axe the federal employees watching porn and taking drugs, but first, she'd have to battle the powerful Labor Unions that have constructed a protective cocoon around all unionized employees. Does anyone think that the White House would have allowed that? No Way.
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