What should federal employees expect from a boss-in-chief whose workforce philosophy is best known for two words — “You’re fired?”
President-elect Donald Trump would start with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which remains a target for Republicans after a scandal that erupted in 2014 over the coverup of long wait times for patients.
If firings do increase, don’t think they will stop at the VA: Two of Trump’s high-profile advisers have urged him to fire feds faster across the government.
This is the second of two columns examining Trump’s approach to the workforce. Last week, we examined his plan to freeze federal hiring. Today, we look at his campaign’s firing proposals in light of measures that injure due process for civil servants while undermining the agency meant to protect them.
Let’s begin with an acknowledgment that firing federal employees can be long and cumbersome because of civil service procedures. Let’s also acknowledge the importance of procedures protecting civil servants from being fired at will, like a contestant on a Trump reality show.
The public is the main beneficiary of civil service laws that also protect employee rights.
Trump says he wants to “make the VA great again by firing the corrupt and incompetent VA executives.” His 10-point plan to change the VA says he will “use the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline the federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust.”
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said “President-elect Trump has made clear that reforming the department’s broken civil-service system is a top priority.”
Trump’s transition team did not reply a request for comment, but two of his prominent advisers have pushed changes that would allow faster firings throughout the government.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) urged Trump to take on unions by “getting permission to fire corrupt, incompetent and dishonest workers,” declaring in a New Yorker magazine article, “you have to end the civil-service permanent employment.”
Reuters quoted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) saying Trump should seek civil service changes to make it “a lot easier to fire those people.”
Massive firings are not likely, but the focus of Trump’s remarks and those of his advisers demonstrate a decidedly more negative approach to the federal workforce.
Devoid of details, planks of Trump’s platform regarding VA staffers might seem reasonable. But they must be considered in the light of civil service degrading measures already approved or considered by a Republican-dominated Congress.
In its zeal to punish people after the VA scandal, Congress — with bipartisan and White House support — enacted otherwise sensible legislation, the Choice Act, in 2014 that allowed expedited dismissal of department senior executives by cutting their workplace rights. They could appeal to an administrative judge, but not to the full presidentially-appointed Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), a quasi-judicial body. In May, two years later than it should have, President Obama’s administration decided to object to the unsavory provision that allows bypassing MSPB. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch told Congress the Justice Department would neither enforce nor defend that measure. Expect that to change under Trump.
Debasing civil service protections not only endangers current employee rights but also can affect recruitment efforts. Job applications in general to the Veterans Health Administration, which runs VA hospitals, are down 78 percent since 2014, according to the VA.
There could be a number of reasons for this, but why would talented executives choose a place with weakened employee rights when they can work for any number of more enlightened agencies?
The number of those other agencies, however, could fall to zero with similar House approved legislation extending the truncated termination process to the entire Senior Executive Service. Among the provisions is one like the 2014 law allowing an employee only seven days to appeal dismissal or transfer. A very tight deadline also applies to administrative judges who would have just 21 days to make a final decision on an appeal or the department’s action would take effect, with no role for the MSPB board. The Senate has not acted on this bill, but it is considering legislation that would apply similar civil service attacks to the Indian Health Service.
Without civil service protections, federal employees could be replaced with every change in administration, the way political appointees are now. Those appointees carry out the governmental philosophy of the president. Civil servants are charged with implementing laws approved by political leaders but without political bias.
The protections don’t prevent feds from being fired, demoted or disciplined, but now they can appeal these “adverse actions” to the MSPB. As its name implies, this agency protects the federal employment merit system. The protections flow from the 1883 Pendleton Act, passed to counteract the spoils system that favored political cronies with government jobs.
Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, understands that the civil service system “could certainly be streamlined,” but he also knows that “the civil service was created as a bulwark against corruption, a bulwark against politicization.”
That bulwark is weaker because of the Choice Act and faces even greater threats under Trump.