Federal Rules Support Incompetence

Published: Apr 28, 2015

Author: Chairman Jason Chaffetz, Politico

Just what does a federal employee have to do to get fired?

At the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal employee who does no work is paid a full salary plus a performance award. This despite having no building pass, no computer connected to the EPA network and no evidence of having completed any work in at least five years. In addition to being paid roughly $600,000 by the American taxpayers during this time period, this employee was allowed to retire with a full pension.

In Phoenix, 40 veterans died waiting for lifesaving care. Instead of addressing the urgent health care needs of our nation’s heroes, Veterans Affairs employees spent their time manipulating records to qualify for bonuses. As a result, more than $10 million in performance bonuses were distributed to VA workers.

Another EPA employee, who reportedly had been viewing pornography from a government computer, was caught doing just that at the moment investigators entered that person’s office. The high-ranking employee subsequently was found to have had 7,000 pornography files stored on an EPA computer and a history of spending two to six hours a day viewing pornography. Astonishingly, that employee continues working at EPA today as the agency continues its years-long administrative process to fire that person.

Given the reluctance of executive branch agencies to hold themselves accountable — and the reluctance of the Justice Department to do it for them, House Oversight investigations are a critical check and balance on executive power. This week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing to investigate mismanagement at the EPA. Unfortunately, these problems are systemic across many federal agencies. But for the efforts of House investigators to expose abuses, many would never be known except by those willing to pore through thousands of pages of audit reports. As we’ve seen in the case of the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, we can’t count on the IRS or DOJ to prosecute abuses.

Investigations alone are not enough. Legislative fixes are needed. Among those being proposed is one by my colleague on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who has proposed the Senior Executive Service Accountability Act. This bill would give agencies tools to remove executives for performance issues. Under this law, federal agencies no longer would be required to place employees in a new position earning a full executive salary. This is one sensible reform.

Another needed reform is a proposal by fellow committee member Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) that extends the probationary period for federal employees. Extending the period beyond the current one-year mark (which typically expires during training) to include time when an employee is at his or her duty station and under the supervision of a manager, would further ensure that the federal government is hiring qualified and suitable workers.

Other reforms are in the works as our committee continues to examine the systemic problems that impact employee morale, hinder success and eliminate accountability. This week’s hearing on EPA mismanagement will delve into some of those concerns. But we are just getting started.

We must impose reforms to remove the bureaucratic red tape that is preventing agency managers from removing bad apples and rewarding hard workers. If we are to create a culture of excellence in the federal workforce, we have to be able to penalize poor performance and reward merit.

Private-sector companies would never tolerate such egregious personnel issues as those that plague federal agencies. Hamstringing managers with a multiyear termination process while allowing bonuses to be distributed like participation trophies only serves to reward the recalcitrant and incentivize the inept.

Successful companies operate efficiently because they are nimble and lean. Our investigative work has revealed that in too many cases, the rules prevent the federal workforce from being either.

Through rigorous oversight, I remain committed to advancing an aggressive reform agenda that is rooted firmly in accountability and transparency. Oversight is more than just shining a light in dark places — we must also work to implement reforms that ultimately penalize failure and reward competence.