Persistent congressional efforts to cut back workplace protections for federal employees advanced when the House voted to dilute due process rights for Department of Veterans Affairs employees.
Wednesday’s debate was similar to one last year when Congress approved a law that included an even harsher attack on due process for VA Senior Executive Service members. That effort and this one also are part of a growing push on Capitol Hill to limit the rights, pay and workplace protections for feds across the government.
But there was a notable difference between the votes on VA measures last year and this week. Democrats, including those in the White House, now are standing up for feds. Last year, they, including President Obama, acted like workplace rights for VA senior executives were expendable.
Republicans were consistent. They had no trouble stepping on employee due process either year.
A word about due process for public employees — without it, political leaders would be free to stack the public workforce with political hacks loyal to a party instead of the government. Workplace protections protect not just the workers but the nonpartisan Civil Service system.
The current bill, approved in a 256-to-170 vote generally along party lines, drew a White House veto threat. In addition to undercutting appeal rights for VA staffers facing termination or demotion, a less controversial portion of the legislation would make it easier to fire new workers by extending their probationary period from one year to 18 months. That was not mentioned in the veto threat.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), sponsor of the legislation, cast it as a measure to empower the department secretary “by allowing him or her to remove or demote any employee for poor performance or misconduct.”
He said “the presence of poor performers and misconduct ranging from unethical practices to outright criminal behavior can spread like a cancer through a workforce.”
Miller, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has been a leading force in exposing the scandal over the coverup of long wait times for patients at VA hospitals and championing needed department reforms. But what he views as a needed reform of VA personnel practices would severely undermine workplace protections for those workers.
In a statement the day before the vote, the White House said the legislation would create “a disparity in the treatment of one group of career civil servants. The centerpiece of the bill is a provision that allows a VA employee to be removed from Federal service or demoted without the opportunity to appeal that decision to the full Merit Systems Protection Board” (MSPB), as most other federal workers can.
Miller, however, repeatedly noted during debate on the bill that Obama and Democrats did not oppose a similar measure last year aimed only at VA senior executives.
That point was not lost on Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.
“We are amazed that this bill, which mirrors last year’s Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, is only now causing alarm within the administration,” Bonosaro said. “In fact, the 2014 act is a more draconian version of HR 1994 [the number of the bill approved Wednesday], yet the administration had no issue then with whether the new legal removal authority and process affected the due process rights of career senior executives, who are not in any bargaining unit and therefore are not represented by unions.”
That also applies to the many congressional Democrats who supported last year’s measure. That support was used against them Wednesday.
“In hindsight, we should have given that SES provision closer scrutiny,” said Rep. Mark Takano (Calif.), the Democrat’s floor manager for the bill debated Wednesday. “We might have reacted a bit too hastily to the Phoenix scandal. We were all, I think, unified in our outrage. However, that SES provision is now working its way through the court system and is very well possibly going to be overturned.”
The SES measure was part of a larger VA reform package and that made a vote against it more difficult. Nonetheless, Democrats voiced little opposition to the senior executive provision. That provision actually was harsher for senior executives, allowing them an MSPB administrative judge appeal process of only 21 days, less than half the 45 days allowed VA staffers under the legislation just approved by the House. In neither case could the presidentially appointed MSPB members hear appeals from VA employees, a right available to other federal staffers. The current bill now goes to the Senate, where the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) hopes to defeat it.
“It is a bad piece of legislation that harms every veteran in this country,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “I believe that we will win in the Senate because I believe more reasonable people will prevail.”
If some of those reasonable people in the Senate, the House and the White House had fought harder last year to protect the due process rights of federal senior executives, they might not have such a tough fight now.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.