Obama Threatens Veto of Effort to ‘Weaken the Rights of Federal Employees’

President Barack Ob, ... ] President Barack Ob, ... ] Susan Walsh/AP

The House Rules Committee on Tuesday merged an array of bills that would affect the federal workforce with an information technology safeguard act, immediately drawing a White House veto threat.

What will soon come to the House floor as the Government Reform and Improvement Act. (H.R. 4361), originally sponsored by Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., would ease the suspension or firing of federal senior executives, crack down on employees who watch pornography, and require tracking of “official time” used by union leaders.

The Rules Committee, at the urging of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, attached six “good government” bills to Palmer’s legislation, introduced in January. The original IT bill would grant the head of each agency sole authority to take any action the agency determines necessary to reduce or eliminate a present or future security weakness and risk to an information system.

Noting that all seven bills had cleared the Oversight panel, Chaffetz said they cover “three key issues: enhancing federal information technology security, modernizing the federal workforce and addressing federal regulatory burdens.”

Now the package includes a requirement that the Internal Revenue Service retain records for at least three years, limits on regulations in an administration’s final days and an extension of career probationary periods from one year to two.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration put out a statement of policy that said, “We appreciate the Congress' attention to government reform and oversight efforts. However, certain sections of this legislation would weaken the rights of federal employees, and be impractical and administratively burdensome to implement.” It threatened a veto.

Specifically, the package’s procedures for easing removal of problem senior executives, Obama said, “would raise significant constitutional concerns under the Appointments Clause and the Due Process Clause.”

These procedures “impose a time-constricted case review and appeal process that would permit administrative judges who are not appointed in a constitutionally appropriate manner to render removal decisions,” the statement said.  Moreover, “these provisions would hamper the federal government's efforts to attract and retain top talent committed to serving in the Senior Executive Service,” the White House argued.

The bill’s requirements for mandatory senior executive reassignment would be “problematic to implement as written, and duplicative of existing efforts,” the White House wrote. The provisions to expand the Office of Personnel Management reporting on the use of union official time are “subjective and virtually impossible to measure. These additional, burdensome requirements would have to be manually gathered for approximately 2,000 local bargaining units across the executive branch, making it challenging, if not impossible, to meet the statutory deadlines established by the bill.”

The Palmer bill’s provisions to safeguard information system policy would “undermine existing governmentwide cybersecurity,” the White House said, while the IRS records provisions would “set a problematic precedent” that clashes with the existing Federal Records Act.

The bill’s so-called “Midnight Rule" curbing the executive branch’s authority to issue regulations in its final months would “infringe on the powers of the president to faithfully execute the laws,” the statement said, “arbitrarily prohibit the issuance of key rules and thus prevent the implementation of laws passed by the Congress through otherwise lawful, well-justified, and beneficial regulations, and would also subject the rulemaking process to additional, unnecessary judicial review provisions.”

Opposition to the bill also came Wednesday in a letter to House members from the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. The group specifically criticized the extension of the probationary period, the expedited procedures for removing senior executives and the new requirements for tracking official time.

“Much like previous reform efforts, this bill seems to be a solution in search of a problem, with the solution being to limit due process rights and terminate federal employees,” wrote association National President Richard Thissen. “The federal government already has in place several tools to deal with poor performers. It is incumbent on federal agencies to ensure their managers use those tools when necessary.”

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