"Get rid of them. Kick them out of there,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, of employees clearly engaged in misconduct.

"Get rid of them. Kick them out of there,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, of employees clearly engaged in misconduct. Susan Walsh/AP

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Lawmakers Remind EPA to Fire Porn Watchers, Obvious Bad Apples

Legislation to ease termination of feds engaged in misconduct likely coming soon.

Lawmakers on Thursday renewed their calls to fire badly behaving federal employees more swiftly, criticizing agency officials for setting a bad example by not doling out severe enough discipline to rule breakers.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee focused on porn watchers and sexual harassers at the Environmental Protection Agency during its hearing, many of whom were placed on paid leave without being terminated. Lawmakers repeatedly asked top EPA management how much pornography an employee must watch to be fired, and voiced their frustration when the officials said civil service statutes require giving each case special consideration.

Oversight Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, picked up where his predecessor, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left off in questioning EPA’s perceived lack of discipline. Issa held a similar hearing last year after reports surfaced of one employee spending most of his day watching pornography, another who for years pretended to be in the CIA to get out of work and other egregious examples of workforce malfeasance.

“We have a duty and obligation to the American taxpayer to fire the people who are abusing the system,” Chaffetz said. “Get rid of them. Kick them out of there.” Earlier this week, Chaffetz penned a Politico op-ed to promote making that process easier.

Lawmakers in both parties agreed EPA has been negligent in dealing with the bad apples in its ranks, and said the lack of discipline was unfair for the overwhelming majority of employees who work hard and are dedicated to the mission of the agency.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, noted it damages workforce morale to see rule breakers go unpunished. He added the committee did not intend to “diminish [federal employees’] reputation.”

While EPA officials said they had to be careful to ensure any disciplinary actions could withstand internal and external reviews, Cummings -- typically a staunch defender of federal employees -- noted many of the worst EPA offenders admitted their guilt to investigators and were therefore eligible for immediate dismissal. Stanley Meiburg, the EPA’ acting deputy administrator, said he was not aware of that authority.

Several Republicans on the panel took issue with EPA’s ability to quickly levy fines against farmers who violated the agency’s regulations, while failing to discipline its own employees with the same velocity.         

“It’s very ironic where [there is] an agency that is charged with making sure we have a clean environment, but yet has a work environment that’s polluted,” quipped Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. He added that by not committing to immediately fire any porn watcher in the future, Meiburg was doing the EPA a “disservice.”

“If you don’t do anything about it,” Meadows said, “it will never change. And what I’m hearing from you today is that you won’t do anything about it.”

Meiburg said addressing poor performance or improper conduct started with well-informed and trained first-line supervisors. He noted EPA has provided those supervisors, who have “some of the hardest jobs” at the agency, with a new toolkit covering “a wide range of administrative topics” that was recently updated for the first time in 15 years. EPA also plans to convene focus groups with front line managers to better understand and address their needs.

Congress will likely not wait for EPA or other agencies to address the issues internally, however. Chaffetz said the committee is continuing to work on “legislative solutions to encourage agencies to weed out the bad actors while protecting the rights of the vast majority of good employees.”

While Democrats on the oversight panel have typically shown aversion to any legislation that strips federal employees of due process rights, recent hearings indicate such a measure may receive bipartisan support. On Thursday, Cummings said hearing all the violations by EPA employees made him “sad.”

“We’re better than this,” Cummings said. “We are so, so, so much better.”