Senate Moves to Change Vets’ Preference in Federal Hiring

Architect of the Capitol

In passing a major defense policy bill on Tuesday, the Senate also agreed to limit veterans’ preference in federal hiring.

Veterans’ preference would only apply to a vet’s first job in federal service under a provision in the Senate fiscal 2017 Defense authorization bill. The provision, which is new this year, would not allow veterans’ preference – a confusing and often controversial factor in federal hiring – to be an advantage in any subsequent federal jobs that an eligible employee applies for. In other words, vets would receive the additional points that veterans’ preference confers during the application process for their first jobs in federal government, but not for any future positions within the competitive service.

The measure also would affect certain close relatives of veterans, including spouses and parents, who are eligible for veterans’ preference under specific circumstances when applying for federal jobs. While the provision is part of the annual Defense policy bill, it would apply governmentwide.

The House NDAA, which lawmakers in that chamber passed last month, does not contain a similar provision.

It’s not clear whether the veterans’ preference limit will end up in the final version of the NDAA that the House-Senate conference committee crafts. The House Armed Services Committee would not comment on the issue. “Committee policy is not to comment on provisions that will be a subject of conference,” said Claude Chafin, the committee’s communications director, by email on Wednesday.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and is a member of the Armed Services Committee, said vets’ preference shouldn’t be an issue.

“The way veterans preference works is that when a hiring decision comes down to two equally qualified candidates and one is a veteran, the veteran gets hiring preference. Anyone who believes otherwise is misinterpreting the law,” Miller said in a statement earlier this month on the subject.

Many hiring managers, human resources specialists and veterans do not understand how vets’ preference works in federal hiring. It’s played a role in complaints filed over whether the benefit -- designed to help former service members find jobs and increase diversity in government – was applied fairly. Veterans and non-veterans have complained about being shut out of government service because of it.  

The “rule of three” in competitive service hiring required that eligible vets receive an extra 5 to 10 points during the application process. But since 2010, agencies have increasingly used the “category rating” system (the "rule of three" is still on the books, however) which splits candidates into different “qualified” categories, resulting in a list of the most qualified applicants that HR specialists send to hiring managers. So, if a veteran and a non-veteran are equally qualified for the job, the veteran will prevail because of vets’ preference. But not all applicants have the necessary basic qualifications for a job, and sometimes you might have two qualified vets competing against one another for a job that only one of them will get.

Cheston McGuire, press secretary for the American Federation of Government Employees, has said that the union opposes the proposed change to vets’ preference in the Senate NDAA, and doesn’t support “the limiting of veterans’ preference across government.”

Another provision in the Senate NDAA would repeal the Defense secretary’s authority to waive the 180-day restriction on military retirees leaving the service and taking a civilian job in the department, based on “a state of national emergency.” Lawmakers expressed concern over the influx of military retirees – more than 41,000 -- hired by Defense within 180 days of retiring between 2001 and 2014, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s NDAA report. More than one-third of those hires were made before the service member retired, and more than half were appointed within one pay period post-retirement.

“These figures strongly imply a significant number of these members were hired directly into the offices which they supported while in the military,” the report said. “While not improper, per se, it does, as the MSPB report noted, create suspicions.” The committee was referring to a 2014 Merit Systems Protection Board report on veteran hiring into the civil service.

“The committee appreciates the unique and broad experience military retirees bring to the civil service, but the committee also recognizes the virtues afforded by career civil servants,” the Senate report said. “Most military retirees and other veterans already receive hiring preferences in recognition of their service. Beyond that, the committee believes veterans and retirees should compete on equal footing with other qualified applicants.”

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