A Last-Minute Push for Turning Feds Into At-Will Employees

Rep. Todd Rokita, R- Ind., made the proposal. Rep. Todd Rokita, R- Ind., made the proposal. Darron Cummings/AP

There are only a few months -- and just 16 legislative days -- left before the current session of Congress ends and all pending bills go back to the drawing board. But that is not stopping some lawmakers from starting one last push to cut federal employees’ rights, pay and benefits.

Rep. Todd Rokita, R- Ind., introduced the Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act to turn all federal employees into at-will workers shortly before the House recessed so members could campaign in their home districts. Feds currently enjoy significant due process protections that require detailed evidence, notifications, rebuttals and third-party review boards or union negotiations before terminations take effect.

Lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have long argued that process, which can drag on for months or even years, is too lengthy and burdensome. Rokita’s bill would also allow agencies to immediately suspend employees for misconduct or poor performance and prohibit any workers who did not receive a four or five out of five -- or an “equivalent rating” -- on their most recent performance review from receiving a pay raise. He called the measure a step to “ensure that citizens are receiving the best service possible.”

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“Americans are tired of seeing federal employees from the Internal Revenue Service, Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, and many other agencies maintain employment, at the taxpayers’ expense, after engaging in misconduct, receiving consistent poor performance reviews, and abusing the appeals process,” Rokita said. “Even more, taxpayers should not have to pay for employees who don’t answer letters, return phone calls, or solve problems that often times are created by the bureaucrats themselves.”

The at-will portion of the measure would only apply to new employees hired one year after its enactment, and allow agency heads to fire workers “without notice or right to appeal.” Employees fired under certain circumstances would retain appeal rights, but only to one agency. An excepted employee could, for example, appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but not both. Agencies would be required to notify new hires they are at-will employees upon onboarding them.

Existing employees would be subject to the immediate suspension portion of the bill. They would maintain MSPB appeal rights when suspended, but the board would be prohibited from reinstating the employees until after it reaches a final decision. The agency would not be required to explain its suspension until 10 days after it forces the employee off the job.

Other provisions of the bill would prevent feds found guilty of convicting a work-related felony from collecting a retirement pension and allow agency heads to cut Senior Executive Service employees’ pay by downgrading them to a General Schedule position. It also would end the practice of official time, which allows employee to conduct union activity while receiving a federal salary and working in a federal workspace.

With such little legislative time left on the 2016 calendar, the measure is unlikely to become law, but could serve as a preview of something Rokita would pursue in the 115th Congress or as a campaign talking point over the next few weeks. Rokita briefly sought the Republican nomination in the Indiana gubernatorial race after Donald Trump selected current Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, but is now seeking re-election for his current seat.

In recently released rankings, Rokita voted in what the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association deemed to be in federal employees’ favor on key issues just 8 percent of the time over his six years in Congress. Previous congressional efforts to restrict federal employees’ due process rights have run into legal and constitutionality problems

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