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Commentator Cokie Roberts Takes Questions About The Presidential Transition

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Cokie Roberts is with us next. She's going to be joining us on Wednesdays from now on and doing something different than she's done over the years for MORNING EDITION. It's a segment we call Ask Cokie. It's a chance for us, meaning you, to ask questions of this very experienced political reporter and analyst about how the government works, about how our politics work, about how we got where we are today. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. That all just means I'm old, and...

INSKEEP: Oh, no.

ROBERTS: Yes, but it's OK. And...

INSKEEP: You've seen a lot, is what we're trying to say.

ROBERTS: I've seen a lot. I've learned a lot. I've written a lot. And with any luck, what I've discovered is that when I'm out on college campuses and at public radio stations around the country that people have lots of really good questions. So I didn't think it was fair for you to get to ask all the questions.

INSKEEP: (Laughter). Well, maybe it's not, and so we are going to be inviting audience questions over the coming weeks and months. But I do get to ask the first question...

ROBERTS: There you go.

INSKEEP: ...And it's this - here we are covering all this change in Washington. There's a change of administration. There are new cabinet secretaries being named. What, if anything, remains the same about the government at a moment like this?

ROBERTS: Millions of people remain the same. We have, as you well know, a civil service. And there are permanent government workers, some - somewhere around 2.8 million in the civilian government in addition to 4,000 people who get political appointments.

INSKEEP: The people on top, for the most part.

ROBERTS: The people mainly on top. And about 1,200 of them need to have Senate confirmation, so it takes a very long time. While all that's going on, the civil servants are doing their jobs and doing them the way they've always done them. And sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes they need some shaking up.

INSKEEP: Well, how did it come about that it's only a few thousand that each new president will replace with political appointees, and the rest of the people are more or less professional and stay where they are?

ROBERTS: Well, it was true at the beginning of the country that you could throw out the whole government. And, in fact, when Thomas Jefferson was the first change of party in 1801, he did throw out the Federalists who were here. But then, we had many presidents of the same party, up until your buddy Andrew Jackson. And then Jackson comes in in 1825, and he throws out everybody.

INSKEEP: And puts in his supporters. And this is where the phrase the spoils system came from - the idea that to the victor goes the spoils, that they would...

ROBERTS: Exactly.

INSKEEP: They would get to hire people - their political loyalists because they won.

ROBERTS: And that kept happening. But then, in the Civil War, you had, as with World War II, people come to Washington in large numbers to work for the government - mainly women. They were poor. They were - they needed money. And it happened at the same time that Congress passed legislation providing for the printing of greenbacks to pay for the war.

INSKEEP: Paper money.

ROBERTS: Paper money. But money came off the presses just like it does today - in great, huge sheets. Now, of course, they're cut up by machines. Then, it required somebody sitting with a pair of scissors and cutting out bill by bill by bill. And the treasurer of the United States, General Skinner, said women are just better with scissors...

INSKEEP: OK.

ROBERTS: ...Than men are.

INSKEEP: All right.

ROBERTS: And he also allowed us (ph) how he could pay them less. But then, of course, it was members of Congress who got to appoint these women, and there was all kinds of allegations that the men required sexual favors in return for the employment.

INSKEEP: Total scandal here.

ROBERTS: It was a complete scandal. There were hearings. James Garfield, in fact - later president - was the chairman of the committee doing the hearings. And the minority report said that the Treasury has been converted into the most extensive whore house in the nation.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ROBERTS: And so reform was called for, and Civil Service was passed in 1871.

INSKEEP: So what is the practical effect of that, then, that a new president comes in - and every - every new president probably thinks, I'm going to change everything around here - but the first thing they have to deal with is a workforce of millions that remains in place?

ROBERTS: Well, the practical effect is it's very hard to change it. But they still do have the remnants of your buddy Andy Jackson's spoil system. And, you know, we're hearing President-elect Trump talk about freezing the federal workforce. The problem with that is that it freezes people in place who might not be the ideal people to be frozen. For instance, right now in the federal workforce, there are more people over the age of 65 working in IT than under the age of 30.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ROBERTS: So freezing that place is probably not a good idea.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much for joining us.

ROBERTS: Steve, always good to be with you, whatever day of the week it is.

INSKEEP: And again, a reminder - she's going to be joining us on Wednesdays. The segment is called Ask Cokie. You can tweet us at MORNING EDITION with the hashtag #AskCokie, or join the conversation on Snapchat. Snap us at NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.