Storm clouds gather over Capitol Hill. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

A House committee on Tuesday approved two bills to speed up the disciplinary processes for federal employees and to restrict their appeal rights, over objections of Democrats who characterized the measures as eroding the basis of a merit-based civil service.

During debate in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republicans argued that the many months it can take for an agency to carry out discipline, with the appeals process afterward often lasting even longer, discourage managers against disciplining employees. They pointed out that in surveys, only one third of federal employees agree that their agency takes steps to deal with problem co-workers.

“Federal managers spend far too much time, often unsuccessfully, in trying to address performance issues and those employees who engage in misconduct,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.), of the more wide-ranging of the two bills, which largely mirrors changes enacted a year ago applying only at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That measure would shorten to seven days the time employees have to respond to a notice of proposed discipline; require the agency to make a final decision within 15 days afterward; and allow only seven days, rather than 30, for the employee to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency that hears such challenges.

It further would end the requirement to give employees a formal chance to improve before being disciplined for poor performance; make disciplinary actions and layoffs appealable only to the MSBP and not through negotiated grievance procedures; disallow appeals of furloughs lasting less than 14 days; and allow agencies to recoup bonuses from employees later found to have committed misconduct.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said that “Whatever the good intentions of this bill might be, there is real harm this will inflict on federal employees, and it’s in a context of an assault on federal employees in this Congress and in this administration.”

The bill “appears to be a compilation of all the anti-federal workforce bills that have been introduced in this Congress,” said the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.). “This measure raises serious concerns about fairness and due process . . . It would limit and in some cases eliminate employees’ rights to appeal adverse decisions.”

The National Treasury Employees Union said in a statement the bill “would undo decades of established federal employment law by eliminating the due process rights of all federal employees, subjecting them to unfair and discriminatory actions by political and career managers without any ability to defend themselves.”

The American Federation of Government Employees said in a letter to the committee the net effect would be to “game the system to deprive the federal workforce of any procedure or right that provide a fair hearing and outcome.”

Another provision would double to two years the probationary period before employees have full appeal rights — that longer period already applies to Defense Department employees. Cummings said that “would increase the length of time that federal employees are without protection from retaliation, discrimination or other prohibited personnel practices.”

However, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said a longer probationary period “gives employees the time they need to demonstrate proficiency in their roles before supervisors have to make a decision whether or not they are qualified to become permanent federal employees.” He sponsored a stand-alone bill the House passed last year to make two years the standard.

The second bill would allow the MSPB to issue summary judgments where there is no dispute over facts; charge a filing fee similar to those charged by federal courts; and lower the agency’s burden of proving that discipline was justified, from the majority of the evidence to only “substantial” evidence.

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said the policy changes would bring the MSPB in line with other adjudicatory federal agencies and that the fee would discourage the filing of cases that have no merit or that fall outside the MSPB’s jurisdiction, which he said account for nearly half of appeals brought there.

But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.) called the bill “an undisguised attempt to rob federal employees of the due process that they have always had.”

Said Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), “This is nothing but beating up on federal employees, and if we continue to do that they are going to wander off. The best ones will have other opportunities in the workplace, and we’re going to be left with whoever you get when the good employees wander off.”