By William Wiley, July 18, 2018

We have been shouting from the pages of our articles and in our classroom seminars (and webinars) that because we are not doing a good job of holding employees accountable, we are on the verge of losing our federal civil service. We leave it up to you, the informed reader, as to whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a thing nonetheless. And the verge just got a full step closer.

About 18 months ago, HR-559 was introduced by a bunch of Congresspeople in the House of Representatives. If you know how Congress works, members introduce a lot of bills to make sure, in part, that they have something to brag about when they communicate with their constituents. Now, most of those bills never make it to first base. They are assigned to a committee, and the committee discretely fails to act on the submission. Congressional representatives get points for the introduction, and that’s about it. If a bill is ever voted out of a committee, that’s huge, because now it goes to the floor for a vote, a vote that usually agrees with the recommendation of the committee, especially if the bill has many cosponsors. Given that this particular bill sat in committee for a year-and-a-half suggested that it would die the fate of most pieces of proposed legislation, and just fade away.

Well, well, well. Guess who just made it to first base? That’s right, HR-559, the MERIT Act of 2017, was voted out of committee recently. With 55 cosponsors (all Republicans, if you care), it now stands an excellent chance of being adopted by the entire House. That would be second base. Then, it goes to committee in the Senate where historically many House-passed pieces of legislation go to die. However, this year is different from many others:

  • The Senate has signaled that it is geared up to pass legislation and confirm Presidential nominations by significantly shortening its usual month-long August recess.
  • In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a midterm election coming up in November. Look at your three-part government-issued calendar hanging on your wall. That’s just a couple or three pages from now.
  • Congressional Members and Senators love to take recently-passed legislation to the voters near elections to show them that they take governing seriously. What could be more serious governing than creating a law to make it easier to get rid of bad government workers? You know, those federal employees that the public, in general, thinks are over-paid and under-worked?
  • Republicans who support the President, according to the Washington Post, are winning elections over Republicans who do not.
  • The President, in his State of the Union speech, said he wants the law changed to make it easier to fire federal civil servants.

Being a betting person, if I had the opportunity, I would bet that this bill is going to make it to third base (committee passage in the Senate), and then to home plate (adoption by the full Senate) before the end of the year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how our civil service will change if the MERIT Act indeed does become law:

Current Law MERIT Act changes
30-day minimum notice period prior to a removal. This means that the agency has to keep a bad employee on the payroll at least 30 days after giving the employee a notice that his removal is being proposed. Some agencies have kept employees on the payroll for more than a year after issuing a proposal. 7-day minimum; 21-day maximum notice period. No more extended pay period beyond the removal being proposed. Not only does this change reduce the pay to the employee, it also restricts the amount of time he and his representative have to prepare a response to the proposal.
30-day maximum time period to file an appeal of a removal to MSPB. 7-day maximum period of time to file an MSPB appeal. Less time for the fired employee to find a representative. Less time for the representative to draft an appeal.
A goal of 120 days for the MSPB administrative judge to issue a decision on a removal appeal. A few AJ decisions take many months beyond this goal because of complexity and workload. A firm 30 days for the MSPB administrative judge to issue a decision. If the judge exceeds this time limit, the removal stands. Also, MSPB has to report the failure to Congress where the judge’s next birthday will probably be cancelled.
The Board can stay a removal if it believes that whistleblower reprisal might have occurred. No more whistleblower stays. There really weren’t many of these anyway, but man-oh-man, were they a poke in the eye when they occurred.
Each fact and the ultimate justification for a removal must be supported by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that the firing agency must present evidence to MSPB that it is more likely than not that the removal is justified; i.e., that removal is probably warranted. This is a significantly lower burden of proof than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt burden required to convict someone of a crime. A removal must be supported by substantial evidence, a lower burden than preponderance. The agency must prove that removal might be warranted, not that it is probably warranted. The Supreme Court has described this evidence burden as a grain more than a scintilla. Most cases we lose are not lost for lack of proof; most are lost for using bad procedures. However, this will help with those where proof is controlling. *

* Here’s an example of how the lower burden of proof most likely would have helped an agency. Several months ago, our friends at the Forest Service fired an employee for engaging in unwelcome sexual conduct after hours in his government-provided housing unit on agency property. The judge who heard the appeal set it aside, reasoning that the agency had not proven that there “probably” is a nexus between the off-duty conduct and his agency employment. In my opinion, and it is worth exactly what you are paying for it, a judge would be hard-pressed to conclude that the agency failed to prove by at least substantial evidence that there “might be” a nexus. Those grains and scintillas are mighty tiny, you know: a jot, a whit, an iota, a scrap, an itty-bitty trace.

So, let’s put all this into perspective. If the MERIT Act becomes law, we still have a protected civil service. However, if in today’s world you believe that on a scale of 1-10, the effort necessary to fire a bad federal employee is about an 8, the level of difficulty under the MERIT Act now drops it to about 2-3. We can still lose cases on appeal if we, for example, violate the employee’s due process rights and the judge acts quickly enough to reverse the removal. The act does not go as far as the law change over at the Department of Veterans Affairs last year where there is now no mitigation of the penalty. Under the MERIT Act, agencies will still need to do a Douglas Factor analysis. Nor does the act take away MSPB appeal rights altogether, as was done to SESers at VA. The core rights of federal employees to be treated fairly remain in place. However, the mechanisms by which an employee can exercise those rights will be significantly restricted.

Keep in mind that this is still only a bill. The Senate is known for taking the edge off of House-passed legislation. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s as to what sausage will come out the other end of this legislating process. However, if the MERIT Act becomes law, whatever you do in the civil service will change significantly. And, it’s because in large part we have not effectively used the existing laws to hold bad employees accountable. Keep THAT in mind as well as you move toward implementing whatever it is that finally comes out of Congress.

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