A House committee voted Thursday to advance a bill that would increase the probationary period for most new federal employees, although Democrats argued the measure would degrade civil servants’ due process rights.
Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 19-17 to send the Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service Act (H.R. 4182) to the full House for consideration. The legislation, introduced by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., would increase the probationary period for new hires to the competitive service and the Senior Executive Service from one to two years, and it would exempt time spent training new feds from that timetable.
“A longer probationary period gives agencies the time they need to ensure that candidates will be able to successfully carry out the functions of the positions they’re seeking,” Comer said. “Two years—plus any time spent in formal training—allows agencies to properly assess the performance of new hires before their appointment to the federal civil service. One year simply is not enough time.”
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The bill has the support of the Government Managers Coalition, which includes the Senior Executives Association and a number of other groups representing federal managers.
“The GMC’s mission is to promote good government initiatives that foster effectiveness and efficiency throughout the federal government,” the coalition wrote in a letter to the oversight committee. “We believe that this legislation will allow employees sufficient time on the job to demonstrate their abilities as well as allow for proper assessment. The measure will ensure that supervisors have the opportunity and authority to fulfill their performance management responsibilities that may not be feasible under the current one-year probationary period.”
But Democrats on the committee said the proposal would erode federal workers’ due process rights, and argued there was not sufficient evidence to prompt such a change in how the government hires and evaluates new employees.
“We have had no hearings on the actual impact of this change, which undermines due process rights, harms whistleblower protections, and could hurt recruitment and retention efforts,” said ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “It would double the time with which federal employees have limited due process rights, when they can be fired without 30 days’ notice, when they have limited rights to an attorney or representative and they generally cannot appeal their removal. This is a step toward the dangerous dream of making all federal workers at-will employees.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said he was not necessarily opposed to Comer’s proposal, but wanted to learn more about its potential impact on hiring and employee evaluation. He unsuccessfully sought to amend the bill to instead require the Government Accountability Office to study the issue and return to the committee with its findings.
“This may be a good idea, but we don’t really know that yet,” Connolly said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about the efficacy of this proposal. I’m concerned about its potential impact on recruiting the workforce of the future, since some 40 percent of the federal workforce will soon be eligible for retirement . . . I’d like to see the evidence to see if making the probationary period two years is materially different, and what are the good and the bad impacts?”
But Comer argued that GAO already reported on complaints from some federal managers that the current probationary period is too short, and some agencies, including the Defense Department, already evaluate new hires for their first two years on the job.
“The need for a longer probationary period is not new—federal managers’ groups have advocated for an extended probationary period for more than a decade,” he said. “Most Americans would agree that Congress punts, delays and kicks the can down the road on far too many issues.”