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Changes Ahead for Federal Workforce

While many acknowledge the federal personnel system is long overdue for modernization, just how quickly -- and in what form -- change will occur is anyone's guess.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
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Even before the 115th Congress officially met for the first time, the finishing touches were being put on bills that would change almost every aspect of how federal employees are compensated and disciplined. It's just one sign, said Jessica Klement, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, that "everything is going to be on the table" in the new Congress.

That seems to be a popular opinion among many in Washington. Kristine Simmons, vice president for government affairs at the Partnership for Public Service, told cyberFEDS® that "it's amazing in a matter of weeks, we've gone from talking about very incremental change to very transformational change. The language around the civil service is now in the context of blowing up the system, which we haven't seen in more than a decade," Simmons said.

Indeed, on Monday President Donald Trump instituted a government-wide hiring freeze, signing an executive order that he said would affect all employees "except for the military."

According to the Washington Post, Trump had pledged to halt government hiring as part of his campaign's "Contract with the American Voter," which he framed as part of a larger effort to "clean up corruption and special interest in Washington D.C." That campaign plan, however, also included exemptions for public safety and public health.

Even Office of Personnel Management acting Director Beth Cobert called for more comprehensive civil service reform in her "exit" memo, which acknowledged the federal personnel system "is long overdue for modernization." She said Congress should work with "representatives from the President's National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, the private sector and academic experts to develop recommendations on reforms that would modernize personnel policies."

Whether that will happen remains to be seen. But what is clear is that Congress will be taking a look at federal pay and benefits, discipline, and the size of the federal workforce.

Pay and benefits

On the first day of the 115th Congress, House Republicans pushed through debate rules that permit amendments to be added to appropriations bills that could reduce the number of employees in an agency or individual office; spending for an individual agency covered by a larger appropriations bill; and pay for individuals or groups of employees.

The Senate would still have to approve these provisions through the regular appropriations process, so if any are put forward, they may not come to fruition.

But "very high on the list of threats," said Klement, are proposals to increase required contributions to the Federal Employees Retirement System. That's because changes to federal benefits -- including health benefits -- can be done through the budget reconciliation process. Unlike a budget resolution, reconciliation has the force of law and only requires a majority vote in the Senate to pass. Klement said the recently introduced 2017 reconciliation measure focuses mainly on eliminating Obamacare, and "appears to leave federal employees alone." But she said the FY 2018 reconciliation bill, which should be brought up this spring, is likely to require federal employees to contribute more to their retirement, and possibly more sweeping changes to benefits.

Pay raises seem to be a less contentious issue, at least when it comes to locality pay and the general, across-the-board pay raise. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, emphasized that while he was not pleased with the pay raises federal employees received during the Obama years, he believes there is bipartisan agreement that at least some type of pay raise is crucial for retention and recruitment purposes. However, a good test of bipartisan support for a raise should come early. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., plans to reintroduce legislation that would give a pay raise only to employees who receive at least a superior rating on their annual job appraisal.

A GOP staffer told cyberFEDS® that Congress will probably follow President-elect Trump's lead in terms of the size of the government. Trump has promised to impose a freeze on hiring, with exceptions for several departments, such as Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Rep. Kev Calvert, R-Calif., has also introduced H.R. 295, which would limit the number of civilian employees at the Defense Department.

Discipline

The federal discipline process, experts agree, will also receive a lot of attention in the 115th Congress.

"You're likely going to see a lot of stand-alone bills, or even a comprehensive package, dealing with discipline," similar to what's been proposed with the VA, said Klement.

Greg Sanford, director of governmental affairs for the Federal Managers Association, told cyberFEDS® "there's a clear path" for Congress to go after things like changes in the disciplinary process and Merit Systems Protection Board appeal and due process rights. Sanford also said he "wouldn't be surprised if that happened quickly," noting that Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has said he will pursue changes in the disciplinary process. Sanford said FMA would push back on certain changes to due process rights because "we got away from the spoils system for a reason." Sanford also said that he expected much of the early push for comprehensive changes to come more from the House, indicating that the Senate may focus on a more piecemeal approach. One such bill -- which AFGE's Cox has called a "venomous piece of legislation" -- is Rokita's bill. In addition to the pay raise provisions, the bill would make all new federal employees at-will, allowing them to be suspended or terminated for little or even no cause. Employees who feel they have been fired due to a prohibited personnel action, such as discrimination, would have to appeal within a 10-day time period. They could remain suspended while the case is being heard.

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'Good government' Bills

Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation and a former National Treasury Employees Union president, told cyberFEDS® that for years many people have been "working on broad civil service reform ideas," with the goal of improving efficiency and effectiveness. But what's being proposed now, he said, are so-called "good government" bills that would reduce union official time and their ability to recruit members; make it easier to fire employees; and reduce the size of government by making it harder to fill vacancies.

"That's not really focusing on efficiency and effectiveness," he said.

Klement also said there are likely to be a number of bills that are couched as addressing efficiency but are actually aimed at employees. But she agreed that the civil service "is in need in reform," and said legislation can improve government effectiveness without taking aim at employee rights.

Sanford mentioned last year's S. 3011, a proposal by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., that combined a number of bills that improved inspector general and GAO oversight, reduced bonuses to employees found to have engaged in misconduct, and enhanced whistleblower protections -- all of which enjoyed overwhelming, bipartisan support. Sanford also pointed out that bipartisan legislation was added to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that revised the way administrative leave can be used, making it more effective if employees must be investigated for misconduct.

Managers also need more training to properly use probationary periods and deal with poor performance, said Sanford. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced legislation last year, and may reintroduce it again this year, that would require mandatory training for supervisors. "We think there's an appetite for that" in Congress, said Sanford, who is "optimistic" that things like performance management and training will be considered by Congress.

"I think we can get some good things done," he said.

But perhaps the most important factor in how a Republican Congress will deal with the federal workforce, one GOP Senate staffer told cyberFEDS®, is what happens when it sinks in that since they control the White House and both branches of Congress, they will be held accountable if things go wrong at federal agencies. History shows, he said, that "eventually, if there are scandals, all Republicans are going to be blamed." Then Congress will have to look to see if it is doing enough to ensure the government is "still getting or keeping enough good people to do the job."

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