By William Wiley, July 5, 2017
Sometimes an analogy helps us think about the law. Let’s try that by imagining that you live in a small town and that you’ve made the same mistake as has this author of having children (????).
You received an email earlier today from your fourth-grader’s teacher informing you that little Sophia has once more, for the second time this year, forgotten to do her homework. The email says that you should take “appropriate action.” You’ve already decided that when the homework-skipper gets home from her piano class, you’re going to give her a real talking to. Then, the phone rings:
You: Hello, Smith residence.
Caller: Mrs. Smith, this is Officer O’Reilly. I’m the Discipline Officer here at Trump Elementary where you daughter, Sophia, is a student.
You: Yes, Officer. What can I do for you?
Caller: This just a routine call to make sure that you got the notification about your daughter’s misconduct today and to make sure that you plan to spank her before she goes to bed tonight.
You: Why, Officer, I have no intention of spanking Sophia. All she did was forget to turn in her homework.
Caller: I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith, but you’ll have to spank your daughter, at least three swats. You see, this is her second offense this term and Trump’s Table of Punishments calls for a minimum of spanking in a situation like this.
You: But I don’t want to spank my daughter. I’m sure that I can get her to obey the rules some other way.
Caller: Sorry, Mrs. Smith. I’m afraid you’ll have to spank her. All the other parents spank their children for a second offense. And our records show that two years ago, you spanked your son Jacob the second time he was late returning from recess. Our goal is consistency of punishment.
You: Consistency of punishment?
Caller: Yes, that’s right. Punishment consistency has been declared to be the main goal of the Trump discipline program. I’m afraid that either you’ll have to spank her or we’ll have to send someone out to spank her for you.
You: You would do that? Even if I think I can correct her behavior otherwise?
Caller: Of course. We’re interested in punishment consistency. We’re not interested in what you think might work with your child. We want to make sure that all children are treated the same, whether they need to be, or not. You don’t have a problem with that, do you? Because if you do, I just might have to refer to the Parental Table of Punishments to see if there’s something in there we need to do with you.
Pretty scary hypothetical, isn’t it, this idea that you have to punish your misbehaving kids at some preordained level for the sole purpose of consistency? Who made up this requirement that punishment must be consistent to be fair? Doesn’t it make more sense to let parents decide for themselves how to try to correct their child’s behavior, even if they choose a different method than their neighbors might use? Aren’t we really more interested in the conduct being corrected than in whether various parents use the same methods of correction?
Apparently, Congress is not. In an effort to micro-manage how federal agencies run themselves, the House recently approved HR 2131, a bill that would require DHS to take specific action to “improve” consistency in employee discipline throughout the 22 various departments and agencies that comprise DHS. As far as we can tell, it has done this without any proof that discipline is now being administered inconsistently or that consistency of penalty will somehow improve the performance of DHS employees. Some would say that it appears to have passed a bill that “sounds good,” but in fact has no value and will create an additional burden for DHS supervisors trying to hold employees accountable for their misconduct.
As you regular readers will remember, MSPB got sucked into the penalty-consistency trap back in 2010 when it issued The Terrible Trilogy, three lead decisions that for the first time in the history of our republic held that penalty consistency was the most important aspect of deciding whether a removal should be affirmed on appeal. From 2010 to 2014, the Board routinely and sometimes on its own motion demanded to know whether anyone else at the removing agency had ever done anything similar to the misconduct which was the basis for the firing on appeal. If there was, and the supervisor of that comparator had chosen not to fire the employee, the removal on appeal was set aside. Thank goodness that Sole Remaining Board Member Robbins rejected that view when he was appointed in 2012, realizing the untenable burden that mandating penalty consistency places on management officials. Under his leadership, and with the help of the changing mind of one of the other Board members, the Trilogy has been significantly undermined. Experienced practitioners know that today we are back to just about where we were before the Trilogy: as long as removal is a reasonable penalty, it will not be set aside solely because some other supervisor at the agency did not remove his employee who did the same thing.
Too bad that member Robbins isn’t Congressman Robbins. Perhaps if he were, he could have talked some sense into those who voted for HR 2131 because it “sounded good.”
I’m starting to appreciate how lucky we employment law practitioners have been for the past 40 years. In 1978, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, a unified and comprehensive legal structure defining the rights of civil servants and the authority of supervisors in the executive branch to actually run their agencies. Since that time, Congress has done little to change that basic structure, save for the perennial expansion of whistleblower protections (Congress loves them whistleblowers).
Lately, however, Congress seems to have decided that the executive branch agencies are not being run very well, and that Congress knows how to make that branch of the government work better: reduced official time for union representatives, shorter time limits for appeals, no MSPB review of the termination of senior executives, allowing employees to disobey lawful orders if the employee believes that the order violates some rule or regulation, extension of probationary periods, annotation of adverse findings into departed-employee’s records, reduction in an agency’s ability to use administrative leave, clawing back previous cash awards. And now, mandatory penalty consistency. Each of these changes has either already occurred legally or is being talked about as possibly occurring in the future.
This is a stupid way to run a government. Setting aside for a moment the impracticality of some of the recent legislative “fixes” that Congress has considered, it’s just not the way they taught us in high school civics that things were supposed to work. Congress, you’re supposed to provide the governmental goals and the resources to attain those goals. Then, those in the executive branch will do their best to attain those goals, and the judicial branch will decide whether the executive branch has done that fairly. A very neat and tidy system that does not work when a branch of the government without the responsibility to actually do things tries to manage the branch that actually has to provide government services.
Geez, I didn’t intend for this observation about another poorly thought-out piece of civil service legislation to evolve into a rant about the foundations of governmental responsibility. But it is what it is, as the kids say. So take from it what you will, and remember what you are paying for it. Maybe one of you smart readers out there will actually figure out what to do about it. Until then, email your senators and warn them about HR 2131. Hey, if they’re going to try to screw up the civil service one bill at a time, we’ll just have to fight back in the same way. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.