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Republican Senators Have a Plan to Fix the ‘Dysfunctional’ Federal Hiring Process

Lawmakers aim to allow agencies to bring new employees on more quickly.

Two Republican senators are looking to revamp federal hiring, proposing new legislation to ease restrictions on the onboarding process and removing many of the barriers agencies typically face when recruiting new staff. 

Following recommendations from the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, the Inspired to Service Hiring Improvements Act (S. 4027) would dramatically increase the tenure of temporary and term workers and make it easier for agencies to receive direct hire authority. The government has struggled for years to reduce its time-to-hire despite a myriad of efforts at reform, and the lawmakers said agencies are missing out on top candidates. 

“The best and the brightest typically cannot wait three months to hear back on a job, and I have not heard of a single private company that tells a potential hire that they will get back to them in three months,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Government Operations panel of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “With so many federal employees eligible for retirement, we need to ensure the federal workforce is equipped and prepared to hire and train employees in the days ahead.” 

Under the bill, agency leaders would be able to make temporary appointments in one year increments, which could be extended to three years of total service. They could also make term appointments for employees to serve up to 10 years. If the position were originally slated for less than six years, the employee would only be eligible to serve in the role for up to six years.

Any agency with a "severe shortage of highly qualified candidates" would be eligible for direct hire authority, lowering the threshold from the current standard of a "severe shortage of candidates." This would allow agencies access to the special mechanism when they were merely not receiving the candidates they were looking for, something Congress granted the Veterans Affairs Department during the COVID-19 pandemic. Direct hiring allows agencies to bypass many of the steps baked into the civil service law that typically slow down hiring.

Like many recent legislative efforts, the bill would aim to create a stronger pipeline of federal hires among recent graduates. Agencies would be able to make 25% of their hires using expedited authority for those who just earned their college or postsecondary degrees, up from the current cap of 15%.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., the top Republican on the Employment and Workforce Safety panel of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the bill would "help streamline and improve [the] dysfunctional federal hiring process.”

Agencies have increasingly relied on alternative hiring methods in recent years. About 27% of all new employees onboarded through a competitive process in 2018 were brought on using direct hiring authority, compared to just 5% 10 years earlier. Congress authorized the mechanism in 2002, which allows agencies receiving approval from the Office of Personnel Management to skip the typically required formal rating of applicants and use of veterans’ preference. Hiring managers have reported satisfaction with direct hiring because it is allowing them to circumvent normal hiring restrictions to hire better-qualified candidates, rather than simply using the authority to hire workers more quickly.

The Biden administration recently granted agencies blanket authority to avoid publicly posting positions and bypass other steps that typically bog down federal hiring for thousands of positions anticipated to carry out the recent infrastructure law.