The MERIT Act: Where’s the merit?

The MERIT Act falls short of its purported goal of improving public service, Tom Temin writes.

Like water from a persistent sump, a bill to significantly change the terms of federal employment has bubbled up. The re-introduction of the Merit Act, sponsored by six Republican senators, will refresh an ongoing debate about the future of civil service.

“MERIT” stands for Modern Employment Reform, Improvement, and Transformation Act. It has a nice title.

In reality it’s all about stick and nothing about carrot. Like earlier iterations, it would double probationary times for new hires and promotions, halve the notice period for firing existing ones, trim ways around Merit Systems Protection Board decisions, make it easier to fire senior executives, and let agencies take back bonuses and awards upon discovery of performance or conduct problems.

It would also limit or deny pension benefits for those convicted of felonies related to their official duties.

For the legally minded, the bill specifically repeals section 4303 of Title V of the U.S. Code, the law establishing the terms of government employment.

This move is headed by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). He terms the bill an “effort to restore accountability in government.” That’s a topic worthy of debate. How often have you heard the complaint about how hard it is to fire badly performing federal employees? It’s not necessarily easier in professional ranks in the private sector, save for violence, drunkenness or theft. What managers often fail to do in reality is start laying the ground work once they realize someone isn’t working out.

Still, the federal process is complex and time consuming, and the complications are often magnified by union contract grievance provisions.

There’s a deeper issue, and that is what sort of employer fundamentally does the government want to be? No one argues that people who can’t or won’t do the work should be let go. But who would want to work in a situation where the mode is summary dismissals in a draconian “employee-at-will?” Training, opportunity to move to more suitable positions, the chance to improve, and having redress for the not-unheard-of lunatic boss should also be part of an employment system.

Moreover, if the senators or anyone else in Congress is going to have comprehensive civil service reform, they need a more comprehensive approach than simply concentrating on the negative.

Also needing attention from Congress:

  • Better incentives for the good performers, beyond the fact that often the best are motivated by the mission. Witness the yearly crop of Service to America Medals finalists — one amazing Coast Guard oceanographer was already retired when his Sammies came. It’s fine to grease the skids for the bottom 5%, but how about enhancing life for the top 5%?
  • Codifying what unions can bargain over and what they can’t. How about finding ways to shorten the sometimes years-long negotiations and delayed agreements?
  • Fixing the administrative apparatus of civil service. From hiring to retirement, it’s stuck in ancient ways. Do something about the Office of Personnel Management.

By going after only one component of civil service — the firing part — the MERIT Act falls short of the “reform and improvement” part of its title.

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