Congress

Schedule F workforce plan survives funding bill

U.S. Capitol Shutterstock image by W. Scott McGill 

The $1.4 trillion 2021 government funding bill landed Monday without a measure blocking the implementation of a controversial executive order allowing for the reclassification of many senior civil services jobs.

The new category of Schedule F, established by executive order in October, makes it easier to hire and fire across a range of policymaking and supervisory positions by removing civil service protections and union representation.

Already, the Office of Management and Budget has reclassified 88% of its jobs under Schedule F. Agencies are operating under a Jan. 19 deadline to list positions eligible for reclassification, but some are submitting their lists earlier, raising the specter of a purge of the civil service ranks in the waning days of the Trump administration.

In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal last week, Russell Vought, the director of OMB, wrote that "OMB must lead in executing this important reform."

Democrats in the House and Senate had pushed for a policy rider blocking Schedule F. An Appropriations Committee spokesperson confirmed to FCW that the measure was not included in the final bill.

"I am deeply disappointed Republicans were unwilling to stand up for our federal employees and reject President Trump's Schedule F executive order that undermines our 140 year professional civil service, but I won't give up," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform said in an emailed statement. "Congress must protect the civil service and I will look forward to working with the Biden administration to reverse this executive order with all deliberative speed."

In addition to concerns about firings at agencies, some experts and lawmakers are concerned that Schedule F could be used to accelerate the practice of converting political appointees to civil service and excepted service positions, known as "burrowing in." While burrowing in is an issue at the end of every administration, Schedule F could be a game changer.

"Schedule F could be used to facilitate burrowing in if it's implemented," according to an aide on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. The ranking member of that committee, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), and a group of House and Senate Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Government Accountability Office seeking information about the the scope and type of conversion requests submitted to the Office of Personnel Management from agencies.

"For 'regular' civil servants converted to Schedule F, it's going to be easy to undo," explained Dr. Ronald Sanders, who resigned the chairmanship of the Federal Salary Council in protest of the Schedule F executive order. "The other side of the Schedule F executive order that's far more problematic is exercising its authority for political appointees – in effect burrowing them in. Even though Biden could rescind the executive order, once these former politicals are appointed under Schedule F, by law they can't be removed purely on the basis of their political beliefs. You have got to find a reason to remove them -- you can't say it's because they were political appointees under the Trump administration."

Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, said "there's the potential to do a lot of damage to the civil service between now and Inauguration Day and while most of the damage could ultimately be reversed, it would take time and attention the Biden administration doesn't have to spare considering the coronavirus crisis they are inheriting."

Workforce measures

The appropriations bill also includes other provisions affecting feds, including the extension of the payroll tax deferral payment period to Dec. 31, 2021. The tax deferral period started on Sept. 1 this year, and the plan stopped the withholding of Social Security tax from federal employees earning below a threshold of just over $100,000 in salary. Democrats in Congress have urged for the plan to be optional for feds and military members. It’s faced criticism for the potential tax crunch employees will face when the deferred taxes are due.

"Our payroll tax fix will help lessen the damage of Donald Trump's payroll tax scam for military families and civil servants by minimizing the drop they see in individual paychecks," said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). "Now military families and federal workers will see that repayment spread across a much larger number of pay periods, minimizing their short-term decrease in income."

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employee's Union also applauded the move, saying in a statement that the union "was concerned that requiring employees to pay the deferred taxes in just four months was too short and would present a financial burden to federal employees … The amount of deferred taxes will be withheld over 26 pay periods instead of eight, which is a fair resolution to a shortsighted policy."

The omnibus spending package also sustains a 1%, across-the-board pay raise for civilian federal employees during the calendar year 2021. The bill also fully funds a 3% military pay raise.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the appropriations bill and a $900 billion COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus bill today.

The federal government has been operating for the first quarter of fiscal year 2021 on a series of stopgap continuing resolutions. The most recent of these passed Sunday night and expires at midnight on Monday.

About the Authors

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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