Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is leading a fight to maintain the current system.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is leading a fight to maintain the current system. Matt York/AP

House, Senate Disagree Over Veterans’ Preference

The upper chamber wants to limit preferential treatment, but a House bill would prohibit changes to the long-standing practice.

The federal government's practices for hiring veterans have emerged as a sticking point between the House and the Senate.

An amendment in the House-passed fiscal 2017 financial services spending bill would prohibit funds from being used to change the current policy on veterans’ preference in federal hiring. That measure is a direct response to a provision in the Senate’s fiscal 2017 Defense authorization legislation that would limit the application of veterans’ preference to a vet’s first job in federal service. The Defense policy bill is now in conference committee; the House version of it does not contain the language on veterans’ preference.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a veteran of the Iraq war, introduced the financial services amendment, saying that it wasn’t the time to “dilute” a system that has successfully hired and promoted more vets in the federal government. “While this change might seem innocuous, it could have serious negative implications for the men and women who served our nation in uniform,” Gallego said last week during remarks on the House floor.

The Senate 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 for which an eligible employee applies. 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.

Gallego said that the provision was never the subject of a public hearing or debate. “I’m willing to bet the vast majority of our colleagues in the Senate had no idea this language was even in the bill,” he said.

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 old “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 used the “category rating” system, 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.

Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, said he doesn’t think the change to veterans’ preference will remain in the Defense policy bill -- and if it does, it could have unintended consequences.

“If you’ve got a job where five veterans apply, and two of them work for the federal government already, and you knock them off of the list because of that, then you still have three veterans,” said Neal, who is senior vice president at ICF International and writes the blog “Some people might look at it and say, well, more veterans will get jobs, not less.”

Neal also said he worried about how the change could affect disabled vets, many of whom currently work in the federal government. “I would hope that before you start doing things that would affect those folks, that you would examine some data, and be very careful about doing things that might actually harm the employment opportunities for disabled veterans.” Disabled veterans receive the most preference in federal hiring.

Veterans made up about 31 percent of the federal workforce in fiscal 2014, according to the Office of Personnel Management.