Republicans in both the House and Senate have proposed legislation that would make the United States government an at-will employer, essentially making it easier to fire federal employees.
Introducing the Public Service Reform Act, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said the bill seeks to “boost the accountability of federal employees and efficiency of the federal government, according to a statement from Scott’s office. The Act would also ensure that “poor-performing employees can’t hide behind bureaucracy and continue to slow down the work of the federal government to serve American taxpayers,” the statement read.
Making all executive branch employees at-will would mean they can face any adverse action, including removal, “provided it is not a prohibited personnel practice, such as racial discrimination,” the statement reads. The bill covers all executive branch employees, and limits outside appeals after termination to claims of whistleblower retaliation and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints.
The Act would also eradicate the Merit Systems Protection Board, “which would no longer have a purpose once all executive branch employees are made at-will,” Roy said in a statement, adding that it’s “far past time to reinstate accountability to the people for the federal bureaucracy by requiring that, like any private sector employee, federal workers can be removed from their positions.”
Debating the Future of Civil Service
By eliminating the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Public Service Reform Act would remove “the guardian of federal merit systems to protect against partisan political and other prohibited personnel practices,” wrote MeriTalk’s Grace Dille.
The concept of the new bill is similar to that of the October 2020 executive order issued by then-President Donald Trump, Dille noted. That order created a new “Schedule F” classification for federal workers, stripping them of their civil service protections and effectively making them at-will employees. President Biden canceled the order soon after taking office in 2021, but Trump has vowed to revive Schedule F if he is elected in 2024.
While Republicans such as Scott call The Federal Service Reform Act “common sense,” Democratic lawmakers have pushed back against measures that would “prevent the wholesale reclassifications of federal employees without the consent of lawmakers.”
In February, for example, Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) introduced the Saving the Civil Service Act, a bill designed to “protect the federal workforce from politicization and political manipulation,” according to a statement from Connolly’s office. That bill included and built upon the Preventing a Patronage System Act, which Connolly and Fitzpatrick previously introduced, and which passed the House in September 2022.
“The civil servants who make up our federal workforce are the engine that keeps our federal government running. … We rely on their experience and expertise to provide every basic government service—from delivering the mail to helping families in the wake of natural disasters,” said Connolly.
“The former President’s attempt to remove qualified experts and replace them with political loyalists was a direct threat to our national security and our government’s ability to function the way the American people expect it to. Expertise, not political fealty, must define our civil service.”
More recently, Donald F. Kettl, professor emeritus and former deal of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, described actions such as the effort to revive Schedule F as being part of a broader attack on federal employees’ protections.
Writing for Government Executive, Kettl warned of a “storm that’s gathering on the horizon,” saying that “the case for good government through the merit system is under growing—and powerful—assault. The ‘deep state’ debate is grabbing the public agenda, and the attacks have the grips of powerful bulldogs.
“We’re in for a very big debate about the future of the civil service. It could even prove existential. The fundamental principles on which the system has grown since its creation in 1883 are under the most profound attacks ever seen.”
22 May 2023
HR News Article