Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) considers his bill “a tool for … President [-elect Donald] Trump to use in draining the swamp.” In the process, it would eviscerate civil service protections for all new federal employees. His deceptively named “Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act” says staffers hired one year after enactment or later “shall be hired on an at-will basis.”
That raises the question — why would the Trump administration hire potential swamp dwellers? They would be the only folks affected at least for the next four years. The bill’s potential consequences are nonetheless ominous. In current form, it provides an appeal process for suspended staffers, but not for the fired.
Rokita’s bill makes the meaning of at-will status clear: “Such an employee may be removed or suspended, without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.”
Think about that.
Political appointees could fire civil servants for “no cause at all.”
Civil service procedures can be long and frustrating, but they are designed to guard against arbitrary actions. Federal law governing the workforce permits disciplinary actions for “such cause as will promote the efficiency of the service.” At odds with the “at-will” power Rokita advocates, among the government’s long-standing merit system principles is one designed to “protect employees against favoritism, political coercion and arbitrary action and prohibit abuse of authority.”
The protections are not just there to protect federal employees. In fact, the most important beneficiaries of these protections are the nation’s citizens, taxpayers and residents. Civil service protections are designed to protect everyone against favoritism by political officials and politicized agencies. While political appointees carry out policies designed by elected leaders, federal agencies are charged with serving everyone without regard to their political affiliations. Allowing political officials to fire feds for no reason seriously damages the principle of a nonpartisan civil service.
Rokita introduced the legislation last year and said he plans to offer substantially the same measure soon.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, called the bill a “shortsighted, blatant attempt to undermine a merit-based workforce that would … usher in a return to the spoils system and mean the end of a professional, non-partisan federal workforce dedicated to serving everyone, not just political allies.”
Rokita argued that at-will employment is how the rest of America works. But the federal government is not just another enterprise. The government is a monopoly providing services, many involving life and death, to and funded by all Americans. They cannot take their business elsewhere if treated badly because they are blue when the red team is in power — or vice versa.
“I think the current environment hides too much behind this politicization fear,” Rokita said by telephone. At the at-will agency he ran as an Indiana state official, “I was able to weed out the bad apples very quickly to make sure the good ones could thrive,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do here at the federal level … so it’s fair for the good federal workers, of which there are obviously many.”
Rokita’s bill isn’t the only measure worrying feds. Last week, House Republicans reinstated the Holman Rule that allows Congress to cut the pay of individual federal employees down to $1. Other measures call for across the board spending cuts, excepting defense, homeland security and veterans funding. Different legislation would cut the Defense Department civilian workforce by 15 percent by fiscal year 2020. Another to revoke bonuses of employees involved in the manipulation of Department of Veterans Affairs wait lists sounds like a good idea.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that oversees the workforce, is pursuing measures to fire feds faster, freeze federal hiring, decrease federal contributions to federal retirement and disqualify federal employees and contractors who are “seriously delinquent” on their federal taxes.
But none of those pose the peril Rokita’s proposal promises.
There are better ways to toss the bad apples than gutting civil service protections for the many as Rokita would do. Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, called the at-will plan “un-American and egregiously harmful to the taxpayer.” J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, fears the bill could backfire.
“Instead of encouraging front-line workers to report mismanagement or wasteful spending, this bill would create an environment where employees are fearful of doing or saying anything that could get them fired,” Cox said. “If this bill had been in place two years ago, we never would have heard about the Phoenix VA wait list manipulations because no one would have dared come forward to blow the whistle on the supervisors who concocted the scheme…
“This bill is called the Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act, but it actually would do neither,” he added. “In fact, a better title would be the Promote Fear and Political Allegiance Act, since it would give political appointees and their subordinates unchecked authority to target workers and politicize the civil service.”
Eric Yoder contributed to this report.