Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., sponsored two of the bills.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., sponsored two of the bills. J Pat Carter / AP

Reforms Allowing Agencies to Hire Faster Advance Through Senate Panel

Students, recent graduates and applicants for hard-to-fill jobs may soon be eligible for direct appointments.

Federal agencies would receive an array of authorities to speed hiring under a series of bills approved by a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Two measures would boost hiring flexibility for agencies governmentwide looking to fill critical gaps, as well as for applicants coming from post-secondary schools. Another measure would aim to boost employment at Customs and Border Protection, a priority for President Trump. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved all three bills by voice vote.

The 2017 Direct Hire of Students and Recent Graduates Act (S. 1887) would allow agency heads to circumvent normal hiring restrictions to bring on individuals in colleges or graduate schools, or those who have recently completed their studies. The agency leader could appoint a “qualified individual” to any competitive service, professional or administrative position at the level of GS-11 or below.

Agencies would still be required to adhere to merit system principles and the appointments could not make up more than 15 percent of the number of appointments made to similar jobs in the previous year. Current students appointed under the new authority would serve on a temporary basis, but their agency head could appoint them to a permanent position upon their graduation. The Office of Personnel Management would be responsible for creating regulations for the new law and agencies would report annually on their use of the authority.

“Currently, federal agencies struggle to recruit the next generation of federal employees and compete with the private sector for talent,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who sponsored the bill.

The 2017 Temporary and Term Appointments Act (S. 1886) would create two reasons for which agency heads could appoint employees on a time-limited basis. If the needs of the position are not permanent, an agency could appoint an employee to a position in the competitive service on a temporary basis for up to three years or on a term basis for up to six. An agency chief could also place an applicant into a position noncompetitively if it fills a “critical hiring need.” A temporary employee could serve up to one year and term employee could serve up to 18 months, with no opportunities for extensions. OPM may prescribe regulations, but agencies could begin using the authority before that happens.

The bill would give agencies “the flexibility to fill key skills gaps without going through the extensive formal hiring process,” said Lankford, who also introduced the temporary hires bill. “Agencies will be able to use this flexibility to quickly fill critical skills gaps for time-limited projects and assignments.”

The 2017 Customs and Border Protection Hiring and Retention (CBP HiRe) Act (S. 1305) would give CBP the authority to offer recruitment, relocation and retention incentives for law enforcement positions in remote areas that the agency is struggling to fill. CBP could also noncompetitively appoint employees to such positions in which there is a “severe shortage of highly qualified candidates.” The measure would allow the agency to create special rates of pay and offer commuting expenses for law enforcement personnel in “undesirable and hard-to-fill locations.” CBP would be prohibited from sharing the results of polygraph exams with any other federal agency, which lawmakers said would address fears of the application process causing long-term damage to applicants’ careers.

The bill, written by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and cosponsored by Rep. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has the backing of several federal employee groups, including the National Border Patrol Council, the National Treasury Employees Union and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

“The CBP HiRe Act is a commonsense, bipartisan solution to the persistent staffing shortages along the border that threaten both national security and trade-reliant economies,” Flake said when he introduced the measure in June.

The homeland security committee earlier this year approved the Boots on the Border Act (S. 595), which would allow some former federal employees to skip the polygraph exam. To skip the exam, the former federal employees must have: served in law enforcement for at least three years; had the authority to make arrests, conduct investigations and carry firearms; and previously passed background checks.

Trump in a January executive order required CBP to hire 5,500 new agents and officers. Progress on that effort is off to a rocky start, as Congress reduced funding for the agency's hiring by $200 million in the fiscal 2017 spending bill after agency officials told lawmakers they would hire 3,000 fewer agents than initially projected.