A "swamp monster" appeared along with Republican Study Committee members during a Thursday event to unveil the committee's reform plan.

A "swamp monster" appeared along with Republican Study Committee members during a Thursday event to unveil the committee's reform plan. Eric Katz / GovExec.com

House Republicans Unveil Plan to Boost Merit Pay and Slash Pensions

Proposals would help rein in a "swamp monster" of a runaway bureaucracy, lawmakers say.

A group consisting of three-quarters of House Republicans on Thursday released a new blueprint to overhaul the civil service, calling for easier firing, more merit-based bonuses and cuts to automatic pay raises. 

The Republican Study Committee and its 146 members praised the federal workforce overall, but said in its Government Efficiency, Accountability and Reform Task Force report that civil servants' overall compensation is too high. The report repeated a long-running complaint that good applicants are too hard to hire and bad workers are too hard to fire, suggesting that some feds are intentionally undermining the Trump administration. At an event at the Capitol to unveil the reform plan, which featured several members of the committee as well as a man in a “swamp monster” costume, lawmakers said it would serve as a “playbook” for legislative changes once Republicans retake control of Congress. 

“The fourth branch of government is the bureaucracy,” said Rep. Mark Johnson, R-La., the Republican Study Committee’s chairman, on Thursday. “It’s time to scale it back and this is the way to do it.”

The committee suggested Congress implement many of the proposals from President Trump’s reorganization plan, saying the government needs to be consolidated and restructured. 

“As America enters a new decade, our nation faces a crisis in government inefficiency,” the committee members wrote in the report. “The federal government has never been larger or more expensive, yet, we have never had more tools at our disposal to streamline, consolidate, and reduce the size of government.”

The study committee called for more than 100 changes, ranging from deregulation to eliminating agencies it called redundant or unnecessary. The Republican lawmakers added that all of their proposals, however, would not have the promised impact without significant personnel reforms.  

“A perfect plan, policy, or system is meaningless without having the right people,” they said. “Yet, without a federal workforce made up of true civil servants that are talented, patriotic, and hardworking, meaningful reform cannot be implemented.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., said the reforms should bring federal employees more in line with their private sector counterparts. 

“We wanted to bring some of the private sector practices into personnel management so that federal workers can be paid appropriately have a little more skip in their step, but also have accountability and how they do their jobs,” Gianforte said. 

The report called for a less centralized hiring process, empowering managers and subject matter experts over the Office of Personnel Management. It also suggested an easier process for firing poorly performing and misbehaving employees. Lawmakers pointed specifically to the Modern Employees Reform, Improvement and Transformation (MERIT) Act, introduced last Congress by Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., which would empower agency heads to fire any employee, provided they give a notice in writing. 

Employees would have seven days to appeal a removal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which would in turn have 30 days to make a final decision. If it did not rule in time, the agency’s decision would stand. Employees would not receive any pay or benefits in that interim period. The measure would provide agencies with the authority to rescind bonuses or other cash awards deemed to be “wrongly paid” to workers and extend the probationary period for new hires from one to two years.

The lawmakers said agencies should severely curb the use of performance improvement plans typically offered to employees as a precursor to discipline. Agencies need more authority to punish employees, they said, in part because “the Trump Administration has at times been burdened as commonsense proposals are undermined by partisan federal bureaucrats.”

The committee said the current structure of step increases and across-the-board pay raises means federal employees “get a raise for merely not getting fired,” which, it added, is “virtually impossible.”  

“With a compensation package almost completely removed from merit, employees have little incentive to perform at a higher level that would ultimately benefit the American taxpayer,” the lawmakers said. 

The Republican Study Committee said step increases should be made smaller with the savings going to agency leaders to dole out as bonuses to top performers. OPM should change the definition for “fully successful” on performance ratings, it added, to make it a harder-to-reach standard. 

Citing research by the Congressional Budget Office, the lawmakers suggested the lowest-ranked federal employees are overpaid and those at the top are underpaid. To fix this, they said Congress should expand the General Schedule so top-ranked employees earn more and those at the bottom earn less. 

Recalling a common suggestion from Republican reform proposals, the plan envisioned a retirement system in which pensions are phased out in favor of a Thrift Savings Plan-only system, with larger agency contributions. The lawmakers called for the government to pay a flat fee for workers’ premiums in the Federal Employees Health Benefits System, rather than a percentage of the overall cost, to give employees an incentive to select cheaper plans. They said newly awarded paid parental leave should count against existing paid leave days, which should also be reduced.