The legislation, approved largely along party lines, folds three bills into one.
It would allow agencies to place senior executives on leave without pay before investigations into misconduct allegations have been concluded, would prohibit bonuses from exceeding 5 percent of a worker’s salary during the budget-cutting period known as sequestration, and would allow individuals the right to record meetings with federal employees in person and by telephone.
In the abstract, the measures affecting bonuses and recording meetings seem reasonable. Punishing people before they are found guilty is not. But seen in a fuller context, the package is another slash at a federal government viewed as too big and bad by right-wingers who find an easy target in federal employees.
“Federal workers may be a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s problems, but attacking their workplace and employment rights is unwarranted and counterproductive,” said a letter to Congress before the vote from the Federal Postal Coalition, which represents about two dozen federal employee organizations. “While each of these bills may have a superficial appeal, taken together their malicious intent is transparent.”
Fifteen Democrats joined 224 Republicans in a 239-176 vote in favor of the bill. Two Republicans and 174 Democrats said no. The Democratic-controlled Senate probably will ignore the legislation.
That’s a good thing to the Senior Executive Service, which says the legislation could be counterproductive.
“Although on its face this legislation seems aimed at preventing government abuses, the effects of the bill will, in fact, hinder effective government operations by making the Senior Executive Service less attractive to both current and future employees,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. “[T]he legislation does not serve the American people well. They need and deserve a strong, talented career leadership corps, not a weak, politicized one.”
Republicans cast the legislation as a weapon against all-powerful federal staffers who instill fear in the people they are paid to serve.
“We have seen too many examples of our Nation’s bureaucracy making life harder for Americans and their families,” Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), sponsor of the legislation, told her colleagues.
With hyperbole, she added: “Every weekend, when I return to Kansas, I hear story after story of federal regulators abusing their power. But far too often, many of these people are afraid to tell their stories in public because they fear retribution. What country do we live in where Americans are afraid to tell the truth because they fear what their government might do to them?”
Talk about fear. One thing feds would have reason to fear if this bill passes is getting fired without due process.
“This bill would allow agencies to fire reckless employees on the spot and stop those under investigation from receiving salaries paid for by the very taxpayers they abused,” Jenkins said.
Fired “on the spot” and while “under investigation” are key points in Jenkins’s comment. Staffers could be punished before being found guilty. They could be off the job, without pay for up to 90 days for misconduct that had not been proved.
Even with mechanisms such as the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Office of Special Counselin place, there is no end to complaints, many of them valid, about employees being treated unfairly.
The bill “reverses the age-old principle of innocent until proven guilty,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “That one is embarrassingly unconstitutional.”
The bill also could hamper law enforcement, according to federal officers.
“The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Association have all written letters opposing these provisions,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.).
He said the telephone recording provisions would negate eavesdropping protections in a dozen states “by deeming federal employees, including all law enforcement personnel, to have consented to the recording of their official conversations just by coming to work.”
This section of the legislation was inspired by the recent controversy over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of political groups.
“The vast majority of federal workers are good, patriotic people, but that doesn’t mean that an additional check and balance can’t help,” Jenkins said. “This bill does not villainize federal employees. And as long as they’re doing their jobs properly, they have not a thing to worry about.”
Except being punished before being found guilty.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.