Members of Congress are working overtime these days churning out, or clambering onto, legislation that would make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to fire senior executives. The House on May 21 passed such a bill, and there’s more to come on that subject from both sides of the Capitol and both parties. The mismanagement at VA facilities regarding patient care and the alleged cover-up in Phoenix of medical appointment scheduling delays to help top managers secure bonuses and meet performance goals for the department has consumed Washington during the last month.
Among the many questions the controversy has raised, one seems to be at the heart of the debate: Why isn’t it easier to fire career civil servants?
As is the case with most processes in the federal government, firing a career employee is not simple. There is a good reason why it isn’t so easy, or as commonplace, as it is in the private sector: There are laws protecting career civil servants from being dismissed without cause or for politically-motivated reasons. Certainly there’s a case to be made that the federal firing process (which does exist) could, and probably should, be improved. But making it too easy seriously threatens the due process long afforded to federal workers, significantly increases the risk of politically-motivated sackings, and could have adverse effects on the recruitment and retention of talented federal employees.
The federal workforce is made up of about 2.1 million employees. In fiscal 2013, only 9,559 employees were terminated or removed for discipline or performance, according to Office of Personnel Management statistics. That’s less than 1 percent of the total workforce. So, which Cabinet-level department fired the most employees (2,247) in fiscal 2013 for discipline or performance? The Veterans Affairs Department. VA is one of the largest federal agencies, but it’s not the biggest.
In our July 2012 magazine, we looked at the federal firing process for most career employees to see how it works, and why it’s underused, in Wielding the Ax. The process for senior executives is a little bit different, but they too are afforded due process under the system.