Union Criticizes Civil Service Carveouts in Science Bills
Two bills aimed at revitalizing the National Science Foundation include major exceptions to federal hiring rules that AFGE officials say are reminiscent of former President Trump’s controversial and aborted Schedule F initiative.
Officials with the nation’s largest federal employee union are sounding the alarm about hiring provisions in a pair of bills aimed at rejuvenating the National Science Foundation that they fear could erode the federal civil service system.
The House’s National Science Foundation for the Future Act (H.R. 2225), introduced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and the Senate’s Endless Frontier Act, which has yet to be formally introduced this Congress but was the subject of a legislative hearing last week, are both aimed at revitalizing the National Science Foundation and improving STEM education, research and investment. But elements of each bill—the Endless Frontier Act was previously introduced last year—grant the agency’s director with a waiver of civil service rules in order to more easily hire new employees.
“The director shall have the authority to make appointments of scientific, engineering and professional personnel without regard to the civil service laws as the director determines necessary for carrying out research and development functions which require the services of specially qualified personnel,” the House bill states.
Under that legislation, employees could make salaries equivalent to the vice president’s pay. And the Senate bill would grant the NSF director with the same hiring authorities already enjoyed by the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
In a letter to Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who introduced the Endless Frontier Act last year, AFGE National President Everett Kelley said that although his union supports the aims of the two bills, the House bill’s hiring provisions were reminiscent of former President Trump’s abortive effort to move federal “policy-making” positions out of the competitive service, which would have made it easier to hire political lackeys and have stripped thousands of current federal workers of their civil service protections.
“The House bill would allow the director of NSF to essentially make an unlimited number of appointments within the NSF without regard to civil service laws, and pay these individuals in an amount up to the salary of the vice president,” Kelley wrote. “The waiver of civil service appointment laws on such a vast scale bears a striking resemblance to the Trump administration’s attempt to impose a new Schedule F hiring authority on a large portion of the civil service. Fortunately, with your help, that effort failed, and the integrity of the civil service was not subject to political corruption. But dispensing with civil service pay schedules in such an unbridled manner would, at a minimum, be damaging to the integrity of the merit-based pay system for the majority of those who work at the NSF.”
Kelley also noted that DARPA’s waiver to some federal hiring rules exists in part due to its purpose as a national security agency, which is not the case for NSF.
“The NSF already enjoys multiple appointment authorities through a combination of regular civil service employees and intergovernmental personnel assignments,” Kelley wrote. “NSF may also take advantage of other governmentwide hiring and pay flexibilities through programs managed by OPM.”
David Verardo, president of AFGE Local 3403, which represents NSF employees, in his own letter to the two lawmakers urged them to maintain the existing merit-based hiring process at the agency. He blasted the idea that the agency cannot recruit employees without broad waivers of rules surrounding hiring and federal employee salaries.
“The NSF Office of the Director and the National Science Board have repeatedly joined in promoting the argument to Congress, ‘we cannot get good people to come to the NSF unless we pay them above the government pay scale,’” Verardo wrote. “This argument is insulting to the men and women who serve at the NSF and work on the government pay scale as part of their sense of public service and duty. No one need take a vow of poverty to work in government, but complaining that you simply cannot make ends meet on $200,000 per year is ridiculous and elitist.”