Trump: Expand VA's firing authority governmentwide

In his State of the Union, President Trump touted the Department of Veterans Affairs' use of new power to terminate low-performing employees, and wants Congress to expand the measure to cover all agencies.

President Trump at his 2018 State of the Union Address

In his first State of the Union, President Trump touted the Department of Veterans Affairs' use of new power to terminate low-performing employees, and wants Congress to expand the measure to cover all agencies.

In his first State of the Union, President Donald Trump touted the Department of Veterans Affairs' use of new power to terminate low-performing employees, and wants Congress to expand the measure to cover all agencies.

Trump praised the VA Accountability Act, passed by Congress last June, which gives expedited firing authority to the VA chief. According to a White House fact sheet distributed during the speech, 1,470 VA employees were fired between the law's enactment and the end of 2017, with 443 suspended and 83 demoted.

Now Trump is looking to give that authority to leaders across government.

"All Americans deserve accountability and respect -- and that is what we are giving them," Trump said. "So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers -- and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people."

The Trump administration is expected to announce its plans for agency reorganization with its 2019 budget request, which is due out in mid-February. These plans could include workforce reduction targets for many civilian agencies, buyout offers and requests to Congress for civil service reform.

Advocates for federal workers pushed back on the remarks.

Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said "It is unfortunate that the president chose to single out our world-class civil service tonight leaving the impression that federal employees are not dedicated to public service, committed to the missions of their agencies and honorable Americans." NTEU represents 150,000 federal employees across 32 departments and agencies.

"Federal employees must retain existing protections that stop unfair and arbitrary management practices, along with political favoritism and retaliation. Our workforce is non-partisan and merit-based and any reduction in due process protections is a step backward for our country," Reardon said in an emailed statement.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he was "particularly disturbed that the President chose to demagogue hard-working federal employees, who are already being asked to do more with less with every passing year in service to their country." 

Many in Congress have long sought changes to civil service rules. At a Senate hearing in February 2017, during the hiring freeze in the early days of the Trump administration, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) was eager to overhaul the hiring process. Lankford reasoned that a process that brought in the right people would result in fewer "issues with firing and with oversight."

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed a slate of workforce bills in November, including one that looks to extend probationary periods for any federal position requiring formal training, including senior managers, to two years

The last major civil service reform legislation passed in 1978, and many experts think an update to pay schedules, hiring practices, job classifications and more is long overdue.

However, some federal workforce experts are concerned about the punitive tone coming from the White House and elsewhere.

"The obsession with firing federal employees has gone overboard," said Don Kettl, a professor and former dean in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, in a July 2017 interview with FCW.

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