VA story has a lesson for unions: Don’t sleep on civil-service reform

Joe Davidson
Columnist June 8

The folks honoring federal senior executives in the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms last week might want to inquire about reserving the grand digs for a wake.

With its free-standing scagliola Corinthian columns, the Great Seal of the United States sculpted into the ceiling and a balcony with panoramic views, the eighth-floor Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room would be a grand setting to send off the civil-service protections Congress is preparing to trample.

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

With Thursday’s announcement by Sens. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) of bipartisan agreement on a bill to right a beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), it’s a good bet that members of the Senior Executive Service (SES)who work at the VA will see their rights of employment due process slashed.

There are many lessons in the VA story. One that should not be lost on federal employee organizations is the willingness of Congress to quickly alter the long-standing landscape of the civil service. Like an old-fashioned alarm clock with clanging bells, this is a wake-up call too loud to ignore. If union leaders don’t get in front of civil-service reform and help shape it from the beginning, they risk leaving their members’ protections to panicky members of Congress.

An American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) news release applauded parts of the Senate legislation, which includes good things such as hiring more doctors and nurses at the VA. Yet, curiously, the statement is silent about the attack on civil-service protections. AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. has previously voiced his opposition to those provisions, which do not apply to union members. At least not yet.

If this bill becomes law, it’s not just the department’s senior executives who should worry. The VA is the target this time, but will places such as the Internal Revenue Service and the General Services Administration, which have had their own scandals in recent years, be next? If Congress slashes civil-service protections for senior executives, who are not unionized, what’s to stop legislators from doing the same to other federal employees?

Any civil-service change should be done in a well-examined process, which a knee-jerk, agency du jour approach is not. The quickly crafted Senate bill is moving to a vote with no hearing planned on the employee provisions. No employee representative was invited to a hearing that was scheduled, then canceled, last week. That doesn’t show much respect for the views of the workers whose rights would be gutted.

The long wait times for patients and the scandal over foolish and perhaps illegal schemes to cover up those delays have seriously damaged the reputation of a department that generally provides fine service to veterans — after they languish in queues. The scandal also has led usually wiser heads on Capitol Hill to join the rush to sacrifice employee rights on the altar of serving veterans. Notably, that includes many Democrats who regularly support and protect federal employees.

The legislation, on which the Senate could vote this week, treats VA senior executives as scapegoats, mere second-class federal employees with lesser rights than colleagues in other agencies. The bill’s language wasn’t released last week, but Sanders’s staff expects it to say that top civil servants in the department would have one week to appeal a firing to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which would then have 21 days to render a decision.

This process now can take a year. That is too long. But it’s too long for everyone, not just VA employees. If it needs fixing, fix it for all. Trying to squish that process into such a short period is not realistic without an unlikely gush of funding to significantly expand the board’s capability. Even if MSPB were given the required resources, the seven-day deadline for employees to appeal is, as Senior Executives Association President Carol Bonosaro says, “ a sham.”

Yet, as vindictive as this measure is, it is better than a House-approved bill that would provide no appeal rights at all. The House would allow VA’s political leadership to turn top civil servants essentially into at-will employees. The civil service is designed to ensure a politically independent core of workers protected from the political whims of elected and appointed leaders, who come and go. Did House members, who overwhelmingly approved the bill, miss that in civics class?

While unfair to VA employees, these bills also could prove counterproductive for the agency. Why would top employees and gifted recruits choose the VA over another agency that does not suppress workplace protections? House legislation that would deny bonuses only to VA senior executives is another way to discourage talent.

In the name of fixing the VA, Congress runs the risk of driving away those needed to get the job done. The VA can be fixed without breaking civil-service protections. If union leaders sleep on plans to cut those protections and on civil-service reform generally, their members could find themselves with a headache.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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