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Holding the Government Accountable

House Members Stand Up to Bad Executive Orders, Stand Up for Federal Workers

President Trump signed three executive orders in late May aiming to make it easier for the government to fire federal employees and weaken long-standing protections provided by federal workers’ unions.

Many government watchdog groups, including the Project On Government Oversight, criticized the orders, saying that they would do more harm than good, and 13 unions filed a lawsuit against all three. Last week, additional criticism came from Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives.

In separate letters, 21 House Republicans and 23 House Democrats expressed their objections to the President’s executive orders and asked him to rescind them.

POGO applauds the Members’ responses to the orders and particularly commends House Republicans’ willingness to look past party politics in order to speak out against orders that weaken civil service and whistleblower protection laws.

The provisions included in the orders fall in line with long-standing policy of the Trump Administration to shrink the federal workforce and make it easier to remove federal employees. In his State of the Union Address in January, the President remarked: “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.”

Removing consistently underperforming or misbehaving workers makes sense—we want the most efficient federal workforce possible for taxpayers’ money. But rather than leading to removal of ineffective workers, these orders would actually hurt the whistleblowers we rely on to expose federal employees who engage in waste, fraud, and abuse. They would also further isolate whistleblowers by removing worker access to union representatives who act as a resource to whistleblowers to know and enforce their rights against illicit retaliation. As House Democrats see it, this order is “…the most direct and systematic attack on whistleblower protections in a generation.”

There are currently about 1.8 million federal career civilian employees. They are the government’s best bet in snuffing out problems as quickly as possible through early detection and reporting. But when the government makes it easier to fire them, those who would risk their careers by legally exposing wrongdoing quickly come into the crosshairs of the wrongdoers and are deterred from coming forward at all. As a result, the American public is left vulnerable to whatever these employees would have exposed; it’s a lose-lose situation.

As the Democrats’ letter explains, the “…executive orders risk turning the federal workplace into a reality show environment in which employees can be fired for raising concerns with potentially illegal orders, unsafe work conditions, sexual harassment, or waste, fraud, and abuse.”

The idea that federal employees are protected from removal by layers of impenetrable red tape is a misconception that persists in and out of government. As POGO reported this February, the truth is that the protections are not as robust as everyone thinks, managers just assume it's harder to fire employees than it actually is.

As a result of this misconception, ineffective or misbehaving employees are often shuffled around rather than terminated, perpetuating the idea that firing them is next to impossible. In a 2017 government study, 95 percent of officials questioned believed that the burden of proof to fire an employee for misconduct was much more demanding than it actually is. Additionally, as the Government Accountability Office reported in 2016, 99 percent of government employees receive evaluation scores that rank them as “fully successful” or higher in performing their jobs.

It is ridiculous to assert that only 1 percent of career federal employees are performing at a below-par standard. It’s much more likely that supervisors simply aren’t taking the time to make honest evaluations and aren’t willing to tackle the hiring process for a terminated employee’s replacement. This pervasive workplace culture, not the actual laws on the books protecting federal employees, is at the root of the problem.

The President issued these executive orders while relying on the same fallacy. Rather than solving the problem of agencies not firing ineffective government employees, the orders would weaken civil service laws that protect whistleblowers and, as a result, make the government less effective. As the Republicans’ letter points out, “…the recent Executive Orders embark on a path that will undo many of the longstanding principles protected by law, which establish checks and balances not only in the federal workplace, but for the American Public.”

The civil service protection laws that the President’s executive orders target protect employees from illicit, predatory, and retaliatory termination. Weakening those protections will leave workers with insufficient due process by severely restricting support from and access to union protections. The Representatives who objected to the President’s orders took a strong step in standing up for those employees’ rights; we just hope the President is listening.