President Donald Trump on Tuesday asked Congress to help the executive branch tackle an issue that isn’t often mentioned during an annual State of the Union address.
Citing success with a new accountability law at the Veterans Affairs Department, Trump called on lawmakers to give “every cabinet secretary … the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
The bill Trump mentioned, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, was a long time coming. Congress for more than two years attempted to change provisions in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, soon after VA said the legislation wasn’t meeting its needs and the department grew frustrated with three decisions from the Merit Systems Protection Board, which overturnedpunishments for three senior executives.
Debate on the topic heated up in 2016, before lawmakers punted the issue to the following Congress. Lawmakers finally came to an agreement last spring, and the president signed the bill into law during a White House ceremony in June.
The VA Accountability Act:
Shortened the time employees have to respond to a disciplinary action.
Shortened the grievance process to 21 days.
Expedited the appeals process for rank-and-file employees with the Merit Systems Protection Board.
Eliminated the MSPB as an avenue for senior executives to appeal disciplinary actions. Instead, SES appeal directly to the VA secretary and challenge the decision in the courts.
Codified and strengthened the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which President Donald Trump created in an executive order last year.
Prohibited bonuses and relocation expenses for employees who have been found guilty of wrongdoing or abuse.
If history has taught us anything, passing a new, governmentwide accountability legislation that mirrors the VA Accountability Act won’t be a smooth ride for lawmakers.
Legal battles over the constitutionality of the old legislation, the VA Choice Act, are still pending before MSPB, which currently lacks a quorum and can’t rule on that petition until Trump appoints at least one other board member to the agency.
And federal employee groups have said the current accountability law will do little to tackle accountability problems at VA — challenges that many experts say are entrenched within the department and its culture.
Members of the House and Senate VA committees said VA Accountability Act struck the right balance of provisions that will satisfy strong proponents of faster firing procedures and those previously concerned about weakening federal employee due process rights.
“Such employee may be removed or suspended, without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause or no cause at all,” the legislation said.
At-will employees could appeal a removal, suspension or demotion to the Merit Systems Protection Board or the Office of Special Counsel, with some limitations.
Each agency would develop their own standards for implementing the provisions in the bill. Specifically, agencies would determine how they’ll plan to notify employees of an at-will status, which senior officials would have the authority to remove at-will workers from federal service and how they’ll ensure those employees aren’t fired or disciplined for discrimination.
Who: Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.)
What happened? Rokita introduced the PAGE Act last in July. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee had jurisdiction over the bill but never publicly considered it.
Rokita had introduced similar legislation in September 2016, but the bill ultimately died during the previous session of Congress.
Federal employee unions have said they’re still keeping an eye on the PAGE Act, in the event that House members decide to move on the legislation.
Senior Executive Service Accountability Act
What: The bill gave agency leaders the authority to more quickly fire or demote SES members for misconduct or poor performance. Agency leaders would have five days to give written notice of their intent to fire or demote a senior executive, the bill said. Leaders must tell Congress about the removal or transfer within 30 days.
Who: Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.)
What happened: After members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed the SES Accountability Act, Congress in July 2016 attempted to fold many of the bill’s provisions into another piece of legislation: the Government Reform and Improvement Act.
“This is a compilation of ideas that have all been vetted individually,” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said during the House debate of the bill. “We combined them together, again, independent ideas, but all focused around the idea of how do we give the taxpayer the best bang for their buck when it comes to America’s civil service system.”
The bill passed the House but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.
Former President Barack Obama had indicated that he would veto the bill if it passed the Senate.
Walberg had introduced the same bill back in 2014. It passed the House but again never made it to the Senate.
Following the General Services Administration’s conference scandal, the bill would have limited agency spending on conferences and travel. Agencies wouldn’t have been able to spend more than $500,000 to support a single conference, and they would have been limited to paying travel expenses for no more than 50 employees to attend an international event.
Who: Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) and Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas)
What happened? Various members of Congress made multiple attempts to crack down on agency spending on lavish conferences and travel. Walsh introduced this bill fist in 2012. The House passed it, but the legislation died without a Senate vote. Farenthold introduced this bill first in 2012.
Emerson introduced the bill in 2013. It passed the House but quickly died in the Senate.
Farenthold again introduced the bill 2015. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee never considered the legislation.
IRS Accountability Act
What:The IRS Accountability Act would have amended the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 to allow for an expedited removal and appeal process for senior executives at the agency.
The proposed expedited appeal process for IRS executives practically mirrored the process that VA executives had under the VA Choice Act.
Who: Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)
What happened? Nothing. The Senate Finance Committee never voted on the legislation. Congress, however, made multiple and repeated attempts to crack down on other aspects of accountability at the IRS.
Recent omnibus spending packages have included other provisions that target IRS employees. The 2016 omnibus spending bill, for example, prohibited IRS employees who owe back taxes from receiving an agency bonus or award. Other provisions prevented IRS employees from using personal email accounts for government business.
Lawmakers have also made many attempts to prohibit or cut back on official time for some federal employees.
Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) last year introduced the Veterans, Employees and Taxpayers Protection Act, which would require the VA secretary to accurately keep track of how much official time his employees use and submit an annual report to Congress and OPM.
The bill also prohibited physicians, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors and optometrists from using official time at all. VA employees involved in delivering direct patient care couldn’t spend more than 25 percent of their work hours on official time. And no VA employee could spend more than 50 percent of his or her time doing union business, the legislation said.
The House VA Committee cleared the VETS Protection Act, but the chamber hasn’t voted on it yet.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last year passed two official time bills. One would have prevented employees who spent 80 percent or more of their day on official time from using those hours for the purposes of calculating their retirement and annuity.
The second bill required that the Office of Personnel Management give annual reports on agency official time use.
Neither bill received a full House vote last year.