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Under fire: Lawmakers target senior executives

Jul. 25, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
Lawmakers are trying to make it easier to impose penalties for mismanagement on senior agency leaders.
Lawmakers are trying to make it easier to impose penalties for mismanagement on senior agency leaders. (KAREN BLEIER / AFP)

Momentum is building within both parties in Congress to make it easier to fire and discipline federal executives for mismanagement.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the Senior Executive Service Accountability Act on July 24 with bipartisan support. The bill would make it easier for senior executives to be suspended for up to two weeks by a superior. It also would require SES members who are placed on mandatory leave during the firing process to use vacation time; and shorten the written notice required to remove an executive from 30 days to 15 days.

It was introduced by Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., and co-sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

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Lawmakers have pushed other bills targeting senior executives, including:

■Compromise legislation S. 2450, passed by the Senate and currently being negotiated in conference after the House passed its own bill, would shorten the time frame for firing senior executives; giving only one week for an appeal and another three weeks for the Merit Systems Protection Board to render a decision.

■An amendment to the House IRS appropriations bill, H.R. 5016, passed by the House July 17 with bipartisan support, would revoke bonuses for all IRS senior executives in fiscal 2015. The bill also mandates the agency investigate the employee’s conduct and tax delinquency status before awarding any future bonuses.

■An amendment to the House military construction and Veterans Affairs bill, H.R. 4486, passed by the House April 30, would cancel bonuses for VA executives in 2015. The VA IG and lawmakers have said patient wait lists had been doctored to improve performance metrics, hurting veterans’ health.

Issa said during passage of the Senior Executive Service Accountability Act that all too often senior executives at troubled agencies are still paid bonuses and retain their jobs even when they behave badly. He cited the GSA conference scandal, when the agency paid $823,000 in 2010 to host a conference, as a prime example of executives behaving badly.

The Senior Executive Service Accountability Act would also:

■Force agencies to justify to OPM every two years why each senior executive position is required by explaining the result it expects from the executive and the impact of the executive on the agency mission.

■Extend the probationary period for senior executives from one year to two years. Out of all employees fired in fiscal 2013, 33 percent had not finished their first year, while 46 percent had fewer than two years of service.

■Require senior executives demoted or placed in lower paying jobs to lower their pay, instead of keeping their previous salary.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee, said the bill would allow agencies to suspend and remove senior executives not just for misconduct but for wasting or abusing government funding.

“I believe that some of the changes the bill would make to current law make a lot of sense,” Cummings said.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said there are critical challenges facing the SES and the system needs to be reformed, but the spate of bills being considered by Congress that would make it easier to get rid of executives miss the mark.

“Of late, senior executives have been under enormous scrutiny and deemed by Congress as guilty until proven innocent for a variety of issues that are playing out in the media,” Bonosaro said.

She said until stakeholders are able to work together and figure out the policy issues surrounding reforming the SES system, the only thing legislation will do is encourage talented employees to go elsewhere.

“Changing laws based on the perceptions of a few high-profile cases is not the way to make good policy,” Bonosaro said.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., House minority whip, said he opposed legislation that undermines civil service protections and targets the pay and benefits of federal workers.

“If a civil servant fails to serve the public, we need to hold them accountable. But we have a system in place to ensure due process, and we need to be careful about undermining that system,” Hoyer said.

Patricia Niehaus, the president of the Federal Managers Association, said Congress should focus on strengthening the senior executive service by promoting training and boosting recruitment.

“It is unfortunate legislation continues to target members of the Senior Executive Service for the actions of few,” Niehaus said. “SES can be restored to its former glory, and now is the time to do so.”

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