House Panel OKs Two-Year Probation for New Federal Hires
- Bill would mandate extra year of probation period for all new federal workers
- Second measure would make political appointees wait two years before being hired as federal workers
By Louis C. LaBrecque
A bill that would establish two-year probationary periods for newly hired federal employees and newly promoted federal managers is set up for a possible vote on the House floor.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 19-17 along party lines to approve the Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service Act (H.R. 4182) Nov. 2.
The committee also approved, by voice vote, a bill (H.R. 1132) that would require most political appointees to wait two years before they can be hired as career federal employees. Political appointees are selected by the president’s administration and some are subject to Senate confirmation.
The National Federation of Federal Employees opposes extending federal probationary periods to two years, Randy Erwin, the union’s president, told Bloomberg Law Nov. 2.
“One year of probation is enough for nearly all positions in government,” Erwin said. “If a manager cannot figure out in a year’s time whether an employee is a good fit, then it is the manager that may need replacing.”
Federal managers’ groups support the extended probation period.
The legislation would “allow employees sufficient time on the job to demonstrate their abilities as well as allow for proper assessment.” That’s according to an Oct. 31 letter that the Government Managers Coalition sent to the committee’s leaders. The GMC letter was signed by the leaders of five groups representing a total of about 200,000 supervisors, managers, and executives in the federal government.
Jeff Neal, senior vice president at management consultant ICF and a former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, told Bloomberg Law Nov. 2 that he agrees with the goals of the bill that would restrict political appointees from becoming federal employees.
But Neal said he doesn’t see why Congress doesn’t just ban all political appointees from being converted to career civil service positions during the same administration. A two-year ban isn’t enough, and H.R. 1132 also allows the federal Office of Personnel Management to exempt employees, Neal said.
One Year Not Enough Time?
The probationary period measure is needed because the current probation period, one year for most new federal workers and managers, is insufficient for agencies to ensure that these employees are qualified, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said before the vote.
The extensive training required for certain positions in the federal government is currently counted as part of the one-year probation period, Comer said. This in some cases gives federal managers almost no time to evaluate post-training job performance, he said.
Democrats who attended the markup said they oppose the measure.
Federal workers who are on probationary status don’t have the same rights to challenge adverse personnel actions, such as firings, as those who have passed probation, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, told the panel.
Extending probation to two years could make it hard for the federal government to attract new employees, Cummings said. It also could make it easier for agencies to fire whistleblowers who have been with the government for less than two years, he said.
Congress recently created two-year probationary periods for new Department of Defense employees, even though the DOD didn’t request the change, Cummings added. Before making the same change for all federal workers, Congress should see how it works out for DOD, he said.
Erwin, the union president, agreed that two-year probationary periods could threaten federal employees who want to disclose waste, fraud, and abuse.
“Two years does nothing except allow an agency to hold the threat of termination over an employee’s head,” he told Bloomberg Law. “If passed, this law would silence more whistleblowers and encourage the misuse of vulnerable employees.”
‘Burrowing’ Called Issue in Past
The bill restricting the conversion of political appointees to career jobs with federal agencies wouldn’t cover political appointees who haven’t personally and substantially participated in any particular matter while employed in a political position. It also would allow exceptions approved by the Office of Personnel Management, which serves as the government’s central HR agency.
The bill making political appointees wait two years before accepting a federal career job would codify the OPM’s current review processes for political appointee conversions to the civil service, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the panel’s chairman, said before the voice vote on that bill.
The measure is needed because “burrowing”–moving from political appointee status to career status before an administration ends–has been a problem in the past, Meadows said.
Are Former Appointees Badly Needed?
Some of the panel’s Democrats said they opposed the political appointee measure, which is titled the Political Appointee Burrowing Prevention Act. The bill would deprive federal agencies of qualified job candidates, Cummings said.
However, Democrats didn’t demand a roll-call vote on the measure.
Neal, the former DHS chief human capital officer, told Bloomberg Law he disagrees with the argument that federal agencies are badly in need of the talents of former political appointees.
“I’ve never seen that myself,” he said.
“We’re talking about a very small number of jobs, and the majority aren’t critical,” he said. “There’s no significant risk to the government in just banning burrowing in.”
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