Thursday afternoon the House of Representatives passed a bill that would extend the probationary period for members of the senior executive service from one year to two years and require a probationary period of at least two years for most members of the civil service.
The probationary periods allow federal managers the time to decide if an employee meets expectations for their position before they receive the protections of full-employee status. According to bill sponsor Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., training requirements for more complex jobs mean that some managers have little time to observe employees doing independent work before the probationary period expires.
The bill, called ‘’Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service (EQUALS) Act of 2017,” passed the house on a vote of 213 to 204, with primarily Republican support.
The legislation raised controversy during its committee hearing earlier in November, as Republicans said that the two-year period would allow for more accurate evaluations of employee performance while Democrats argued that there was not sufficient evidence that an extended probationary period would have a positive impact.
“Having served in both state and federal government, I’ve seen firsthand the critical importance of a qualified government workforce,” said Comer in a press release on the bill’s passage through the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The EQUALS Act will ensure the American people are served by a professional and competent civil service. It will also provide sufficient time for federal managers to assess the performance of probationary employees and for new hires to demonstrate proficiency in their roles. This legislation will benefit the federal workforce and, most importantly, the American people whom they serve.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said that the bill was premature and “appears to be a solution in search of a problem.”
Though Democratic members of the committee did not outright condemn the bill, they criticized the lack of hearings and research on the topic and worried that the extended probation would leave federal employees exposed without the rights normally afforded to them.
“This may be a good idea, we don’t really know,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., adding that the bill could steer people away from joining federal service as it “creates a climate of more uncertainty, less protection, and, I think, diminishes the attractiveness of federal service.”
Connolly offered an amendment to the bill that would replace the two-year change with a requirement that the Government Accountability Office conduct research on how a longer probationary period will impact the federal workforce. The amendment was voted down in committee.
“The EQUALS Act implements necessary reforms to advance our workforce and ensure its efficiency. I thank Congressman Comer for introducing this bill and for his commitment to improving our federal workforce,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said in Comer’s press release.
Comer said that precedent for the bill already exists through the Department of Defense’s two-year probationary period for civilian employees extended in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. However, Cummings argued that the DoD did not request the policy change in the first place, and adequate research had yet to be done on the results.
Cummings also worried that creating a longer probationary period could work to silence potential whistleblowers, as new employees would be reluctant to come forward with evidence of waste or abuse if their job could be easily terminated.
“This bill would keep federal employees in a perpetual state of limbo, where they could be fired for any cause with little ability to appeal,” American Federation of Government Employees national president J. David Cox Sr. said. “Civil service protections and the merit system exist to protect the government from politicization. Without these rights, employees on probation will have little to no protection against discrimination or retaliation.”
According to Comer, the bill already has the support of federal managers organizations, who say that the change will make it easier for them to evaluate employee performance during probationary periods.
“The EQUALS Act would grant agencies the authority to extend the probationary period for competitive service appointments and supervisors. In addition, this legislation would align appointments under competitive and senior executive service with the two-year trial period served under excepted service appointments, bringing consistency to hiring throughout government,” wrote the Government Managers Coalition in support of the bill.
However, according to Cox one year should be more than enough time for a competent manager to evaluate the work of a new employee.
The committee vote on the bill split 19-17 along party lines, much as the bill’s support played out on the full House vote. Though Republicans have a strong majority in the House, 18 voted against the bill, indicating that it may have a harder time of passage in the Senate if moderate Republican Senators decide to stand against the bill.