Vulnerable Senate Democrats say orders undermine merit system principles and reduce accountability.
As several high-profile Democrats pushed the Trump administration to rethink its executive orders reshaping the civil service, an official took to the airwaves to say the measures actually represented the will of the federal workforce.
Last week, Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called on President Trump to rescind the orders issued in May, saying they would lead to “less accountable management and greater inefficiencies at a higher cost.” While the pushback from Democrats on the workforce orders has been swift, the newest letter is noteworthy in that all three of the signatories are from states that voted for Trump in the presidential election and are facing tough reelection battles in November. The lawmakers have occasionally been hesitant to take public stances against Trump, who remains popular in their states, and did not offer their signatures on a previous letter signed by 45 other Democrats in the upper chamber.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, also up for re-election in a Trump state this year, is now the only member of the Democratic caucus not to sign on to either of the two letters.
In the new letter, the senators noted federal employees “deserve our respect and support” and said the orders would “undermine agency obligations.” Trump issued three workforce orders in May: One was aimed at reining in the use of official time, another has limited unions’ negotiating power during collective bargaining and a third altered the federal firing process by streamlining performance improvement plans and exempting adverse personnel actions from grievance procedures.
“These orders exclude federal workers' representatives from engaging in good faith negotiation efforts, enable agencies to ignore the rights of employees and actively undermine the ability of employees to be protected from any discriminatory or unfair practices by agency management officials,” the senators said.
On an appearance on Government Matters that aired Sunday, Office of Personnel Management Deputy Director Michael Rigas defended the orders, saying federal employees themselves advocated for the changes.
“In a lot of ways, these executive orders and the guidance we are offering are in response to what federal employees are telling us,” Rigas said, citing the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and a Government Executive Media Group flash poll. “There’s a need out there, and federal employees themselves recognize it, to reform the process.”
The unions, however, do not agree. A federal judge has consolidated several lawsuits put together by more than a dozen labor groups challenging the constitutionality of the orders. A motion hearing is scheduled for the case later this month. In the meantime, federal agencies have begun implementing provisions of the orders. Unions have reported that agencies are pursuing evictions and other actions to strip labor representatives of the access they require to conduct representational work.
“We request that you direct agency and department heads to cease and desist from taking any actions that would abrogate their responsibilities under existing law and collective bargaining agreements, and encourage you to rescind these executive orders,” the senators said.
They argued that employees and managers should be held accountable, but “the imposition of time limits and other significant restrictions” on employees’ ability to engage in official time actually undermined that goal. Additionally, they said the firing order would infringe on “the merit system principles that govern the civil service” and hurt the morale of the workforce.
Rigas said that employees hired as doctors and nurses at the Veterans Affairs Department, for example, should be focusing on their patients and not on activities related to their unions. He said morale issues would be addressed through the administration’s proposed workforce modernization fund, which would reward high-performing employees or those with skill sets in hard-to-fill jobs. The White House has proposed $1 billion for the fund, but Congress has shown little interest in authorizing it.
The letter from Heitkamp, McCaskill and Tester, all of whom sit on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is just the latest in a series of actions from members of both parties to block the orders. A group of 21 House Republicans sent a letter to Trump asking him to reverse course, which was followed by a similar letter from 130 House Democrats. A bipartisan group of current and former lawmakers recently filed a brief in support of federal employee unions’ legal challenge to the orders.
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