Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., is aiming to draft comprehensive civil service reforms.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., is aiming to draft comprehensive civil service reforms. J Pat Carter / AP

Senate Overseer Promises Reforms to Federal Pay, Performance Management and Discipline

Hearing elicits bipartisan criticism of hiring freeze, praise for federal workforce.

Senators on both sides of the aisle praised federal employees during a hearing Thursday, agreeing President Trump’s hiring freeze is an inefficient way to govern and promising to find bipartisan solutions to improve the civil service.

The Senate will push for changes to hiring, training, compensation, performance management, and discipline and separation, according to Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s panel on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management. Lankford vowed to hear a “wide variety of viewpoints” in drafting “comprehensive reforms,” saying the civil service was not a partisan issue.

In his first hearing of the 115th Congress on the subject, Lankford started to deliver on that promise, soliciting input from a panel of federal employee advocates. Leadership at the American Federation of Government Employees, Senior Executives Association and Federal Managers Association all testified to the subcommittee. The groups expressed a willingness to work with the lawmakers on their efforts.

“No one at this table feels that we should keep bad performers on, and we’re all interested in expediting removal of employees who should be removed for performance,” said Bill Valdez, SEA’s president.

AFGE President J. David Cox repeatedly stated no one in his union wanted bad employees in government, but said additional training and resources would prove more beneficial than new legislation.

“No new laws are needed,” Cox said. “America has the very best civil service in the world.”

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Lankford, too, had kind words for the federal workforce, saying agencies “employ some of the best and brightest individuals this country has to offer.” He advocated for “substantive legislative reform,” however, saying Congress should take the mantle of civil service changes rather than leaving it to the executive branch. Trump’s hiring freeze “may not be the optimal solution for creating an efficient and effective workforce,” Lankford conceded, but he did not fault the president for taking action where Congress had failed to engage.

“Congress can either watch as the administration deals with the federal workforce through executive actions or it can find consensus and work with the administration,” Lankford said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the subcommittee’s ranking member, warned that the hiring freeze could have a “chilling effect” on those looking to start a career in public service.

“Across the board cuts and the shrinking of the overall federal workforce are not the answer,” Heitkamp said.

Lankford took a more cautious approach than many of his Republican colleagues who have discussed civil service reform, with the senator saying it would be important to focus on hiring -- as changes on the front end would solve many of the problems with firing and oversight -- and pledging to support more funding for training managers. He also promised to “protect great employees and ensure they have good due process.”

There appeared to be bipartisan agreement -- and buy-in from the witnesses -- on moving federal employees toward a pay-for-performance system. Lankford expressed concern that federal agency culture rewards attendance over initiative and fails to adequately differentiate levels of job performance. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former head of the Office of Management and Budget, agreed, saying it was important not to give high performing employees the impression their hard work does not matter. Valdez posited the government needed to reevaluate its “risk-reward framework,” noting “not everyone deserves to be promoted and get a bonus.”

The former career senior executive also called on Congress to simplify the appeals process for employees facing a negative personnel action. Workers currently engage in “forum shopping” for their appeal, he said, in which they choose between options like going to the inspect general’s office, filing an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint or submitting a union grievance.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., expressed concern with the Trump administration potentially coercing federal employees, noting White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments that “career bureaucrats” should “either get with the program or they can go.” Asked whether employees should speak out against leadership as they see fit, the employee representatives said they would never advise their members to be insubordinate, but that they should follow procedures in place if asked to carry out tasks they believe are unlawful or unconstitutional.

Lankford pledged to work with the Trump administration, especially OMB Director-designate Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. The senator said he has reminded Mulvaney that OMB is not just a budget office, but a management center as well. Lankford also praised the work of former Office of Personnel Management acting Director Beth Cobert and vowed to see her progress continued.