House takes punitive action against all IRS executives regarless of guilt

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 22

The House wants to spread its noxious notion of mass punishment for Senior Executive Service members from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Internal Revenue Service.

Which agency is next?

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

With a 282-to-138 tally last week, including 57 Democrats voting yes, the House said no IRS senior executives would be eligible for a bonus in fiscal year 2015.

That would make sense if Congress or the agency could demonstrate that each individual SES member was undeserving of an award, which is part of their pay-for-performance system.

Instead, this is a blatantly punitive move designed to push IRS employees to divulge information that most probably don’t have about an ex-colleague.

Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) sponsored the measure, an amendment to a larger funding bill, because he is upset about missing documents related to a former IRS senior executive. Lois G. Lerner, the former IRS official, is at the center of a controversy about politicization of the agency.

“Overall, my hope is that this amendment will incentivize one of these senior executives at the IRS to come forth with copies of Lois Lerner’s magically vanishing e-mails,” Gosar said on the House floor. “Should that day come and should the Congress and the American people receive closure to this scandal, I will cease my efforts to prohibit these awards, and the IRS may begin the process of rebuilding the trust it has so blatantly violated.”

There are almost 200 senior executives in the IRS. What better way to undermine their morale, what better way to discourage top talent from joining their ranks than to punish them all for the alleged misdeeds of someone they might not even know?

If there are individual SES members who are culpable of misdeeds and a coverup, discipline them, prosecute them if warranted, but as individuals, not as a group.

That logic doesn’t sway Gosar.

“They are part of the IRS, regardless of whether it’s one segment or another. And they need to rebuild their image with the American public,” he said by phone.

Speaking in support of Gosar’s amendment during the floor debate, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations financial services subcommittee, complained the IRS paid out $63 million in bonuses when it didn’t have resources to answer many taxpayer phone calls.

This “is outrageous to me,” he said.

Poor service like that is outrageous.

But Crenshaw didn’t cite IRS legal and contractual obligations to pay bonuses for worthy service. He didn’t mention that only $1.9 million goes to the department’s senior executives. Nor did he say that the IRS unionized workforce, which does not include SES members, agreed to take less bonus money than was called for in the National Treasury Employees Union contract. And he neglected to note an IRS letter to him that said under reduced funding approved by Crenshaw’s subcommittee “the 2015 filing season would get much worse for taxpayers.”

Last week’s vote follows earlier House action that would eliminate bonuses for VA senior executives. The House also has voted to take away certain due process rights for VA executives. Senate legislation would significantly weaken those rights but not eliminate them.

These legislative actions demonstrate the willingness of Congress to renege on long-standing practices and promises to federal employees, promises enshrined in law. For example, the section of the U.S. code regarding senior executives says: “To encourage excellence in performance by career appointees, performance awards shall be paid to career appointees.”

Excellence is the key word. If those standards are too loose, tighten them. If Congress feels bonuses should not be part of the SES pay for performance system — a type of system praised especially by Republicans — changing it is better done as part of a larger — and thoughtful — look at the civil service system.

But picking off one agency at a time for retribution by legislation is harmful and counterproductive. It is not the way the U.S. government should do business.

“Clearly, the House has decided that the way to deal with issues — whether unhappiness with unrecoverable e-mails at the IRS or unacceptable wait times for VA patients — is to punish all career executives at IRS and VA, and I have little doubt that this will become the ‘go to’ solution for other agencies and departments,” said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

“That it makes no sense,” she added, “to preclude awarding executives who are doing excellent work — including work to resolve the very issues which concern Congress — is apparently of little concern.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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