Championing Responsible National Security Policy
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Analysis

Schedule F Betrays Veterans’ Service to Our Country

A little-known policy proposal called Schedule F would, if enacted, threaten veterans’ health and the benefits, services, and care they receive from the VA. 

Collage of various U.S. veterans and servicemembers, a caduceus, and documents, in the shape of a red letter F

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Introduction

“The oath is to the Constitution, not a politician or president.”

-Anonymous Veteran*

Our federal government owes a special debt to America’s veterans. When people serve in the military, they promise to support and defend the Constitution with all they have, including their lives. In return, our government commits to providing care and benefits to them and their families after their service to our country ends. This includes ensuring that veterans have access to quality health care and other benefits they deserve, and extends a commitment to their families and caregivers as well. This commitment can only be met if qualified experts are performing the jobs that support the veterans. These experts need to have relevant competency and to understand the systems, processes, and oversight required to provide veterans the highest standard of service.

Our commitment also includes providing veterans with access to career opportunities, especially government positions for those who want to continue their public service. As of September 2021, the most recent time the federal government counted the number of veteran federal employees, close to 637,000 — approximately 30% of federal employees — were veterans. This is a continuation of their commitment to serving our country and defending the Constitution from threats, both foreign and domestic.

Historically there has been strong bipartisan support for veterans from presidential administrations and Congress. However, a reemerging policy initiative called Schedule F would undermine all that veterans have served for, threaten their careers, and even risk their health and safety. 

If Schedule F or a policy like it is implemented, our country could very well be turning its back on veterans and the deep sacrifice they made.

What Is Schedule F?

Toward the end of the previous administration, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order creating Schedule F, a new category of employee in the civil service. Many federal employees have certain rights that allow them to perform their jobs free from political pressure, like being able to appeal decisions to fire or discipline them to an independent board. These protections don’t prevent agencies from firing poor performers — they ensure that agencies do not unfairly discriminate or retaliate against their employees. Under Schedule F, agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could unilaterally reclassify huge numbers of their employees into this new category with fewer protections, making it easier for a president or political appointee to fire them, even without good reason. They could then be replaced en masse with partisan loyalists, exponentially increasing the number of civil servants hired primarily based on their political allegiance rather than their professional qualifications. This policy would likely have impacted tens of thousands of employees  — up to 100,000 or more, across the federal government.

The administration could have weaponized Schedule F to demolish targeted agencies or departments. For example, the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for implementing the federal budget and ensuring the performance and effectiveness of other agencies, reclassified a whopping 88% of its employees as Schedule F, which would have stripped them of their protections. The administration reportedly wanted the office to set an example that other agencies would follow, so it was one of the two agencies to submit their analysis before Trump’s term ended.

Under Schedule F, agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could unilaterally reclassify huge numbers of their employees into this new category with fewer protections, making it easier for a president or political appointee to fire them.

If more agencies had time to implement this policy, any president could have purged nonpartisan experts from the civil service and replaced them with people committed above all else to advancing an ideological agenda, regardless of whether the agenda was right for our country. And anyone who remained in their position would likely be silenced into complicity out of fear of being fired. Although the Schedule F executive order was revoked in January 2021, many influential members of Congress and lobbyists are fighting to reimplement it the first chance they get. Schedule F could undo more than a century of reforms that helped strengthen and modernize our civil service. Most importantly, it would have threatened the health and safety of veterans across the country.

Why Nonpartisan Experts Are Needed for What the VA Does

“Civil service job protections enable trained professionals to act in terms of their best judgment and knowledge without fear of losing their jobs over politics.”

-Anonymous Veteran

The VA is responsible for fulfilling one of the most important mandates of the federal government: It serves the critical needs of veterans across the country, especially those who are most vulnerable and who are enduring some of the most personal and isolating circumstances such as

  • PTSD, military sexual trauma, thoughts of suicide or self-harm, and traumatic brain injuries;
  • exposure to Agent Orange and toxic burn pits;
  • physical injuries — whether combat-related or otherwise;
  • and other mental, behavioral, and psychological issues that may impact them for life.

It is vital that those making decisions concerning veterans — writing and analyzing policies, processing claims and distributing benefits, providing critical services and protections — are in their job positions because of their qualifications and commitment to serving veterans, not because they pledged their loyalty to a person in power or a political party.

When veterans seek to use their benefits, they need to be able to trust that their cases will be decided fairly and that they’ll receive the benefits they earned. They need to be able to trust that the VA’s decisions are based on merit, not on partisan politics. They need to know that the government is there to serve them. This is especially true when considering serious life and death issues. From serving veterans experiencing homelessness to running suicide hotlines, from providing medical care to administering educational benefits, we need qualified and dedicated people who know how to respond in the right way and how to keep those services running.

What would it mean for veterans and their families if these services are compromised because the VA is staffed with partisan operatives whose loyalty is to a president’s political standing instead of the veterans they are supposed to serve? One veteran summed it up in response to being asked their views on Schedule F and its impact on the VA: “Right now the VA provides excellent service [but] if they are hired based on political preference, they won’t consider the veteran’s needs first like they do now.”

Direct Harms to Veterans

“You can’t act according to your training and knowledge if you’re subject to the whims of political self-interest.”

-Anonymous Veteran

When it comes to veterans, while Schedule F would likely impact all VA services, most importantly is the threat it poses to health and safety. Critical oversight is needed to ensure the quality of care that veterans receive. A nurse must be able to tell a doctor they’re wrong without fear of retaliation. Communities need to know that external peer reviews of veteran care are accurate, and not designed to cover up neglect in order to make a local VA look better. VA whistleblowers must be able to expose systemic corruption, widespread medical negligence, and rampant abuse within the VA, as they did with the infamous 2014 waitlist scandal that subjected veterans to medical malpractice, likely even contributing to some veterans' deaths.

In addition to health care, the VA also provides assistance for many important aspects of life such as transitioning out of the military, accessing education and training opportunities, securing home loans and life insurance, and receiving pensions and disability compensation. 

Right now the VA provides excellent service [but] if they are hired based on political preference, they won’t consider the veteran’s needs first like they do now.

Stripping job protections from VA employees would only further instill a climate of fear, creating an environment where it is unsafe to speak up when veteran patient care is being harmed, or when other wrongdoing is impacting the veterans. The waitlist scandal is a continuous reminder of how the VA needs to be improved. Even with experts in place, medical abuse and neglect still happens, but Schedule F would risk installing unqualified people whose inexperience is more likely to harm veterans, and partisan loyalists ready to ensure a coverup.

In response to a survey about Schedule F that POGO conducted through the veteran organization Common Defense, veterans expressed deep concern about the impact Schedule F would have on their health care, benefits, and services. They also cited risks of longer wait times, lower quality of care, and discrimination, especially against women and people of color. Numerous respondents expressed concern about their ability to fairly access the services they need.

“I’d be concerned their care for me was compromised by needing to please certain people in order to keep [their] jobs,” said one veteran. Another said, “Depending on the party, they may want to cut costs at my expense, or judge me based on confidential information about me.” A third veteran replied in the survey, “The health of veterans should be the sole reason to hire, promote, or fire employees, not their unrelated beliefs, or connections to powerful individuals.”

The VA serves veterans throughout their lifetimes and provides essential services for them and their families. There is too much at stake to entrust benefit management to unqualified people hired because of political obedience. Their lack of expertise and potential biases against people perceived to be political opponents could lead to delays, stoppages, or complete denials of assistance to the veterans who have earned it.

What We Will See at the VA Under Schedule F

“My wife and I are both Air Force retirees … Veterans employed in the civil service understand the importance of being politically neutral on the job: We’ve done that while on active duty or in the reserves, and veterans working in the civil service still do so. If loyalty tests are required, it becomes far more likely that veterans working in the civil service will either lose their jobs or seek employment elsewhere.”

-Anonymous Veteran

The recent past can help us understand how Schedule F would likely impact VA personnel in the future. After Congress passed a new law in 2017 that increased the VA’s authority to discipline and fire employees, ostensibly to instill more “accountability” (the same argument many give in support of Schedule F), the VA didn’t use that authority to hold wrongdoers at higher levels accountable. Instead, they used it to protect senior officials who had engaged in wrongdoing and to target low-level workers, many of whom were veterans. For example, from June 2017 to February 2018, the VA removed only five senior leaders while terminating 1,264 lower-ranking employees, like those working in food service and housekeeping. Over the course of the new law’s first year of operation, only 0.1% of disciplinary actions were taken against VA executives or senior leadership, while 36.4% were taken against lower-level VA employees. Schedule F would only exacerbate this inequity of the VA primarily disciplining those with less influence rather than rooting out more powerful bad actors, and rewarding partisan cronies while weeding out anyone who refused to pledge personal loyalty to an ideological agenda.

The health of veterans should be the sole reason to hire, promote, or fire employees, not their unrelated beliefs, or connections to powerful individuals.

To the extent that Schedule F proponents are indeed concerned about accountability, they would better serve the VA’s mission by improving recruitment, job training, and retainment of knowledgeable staff and make the agency a better place to work. Purging the VA of nonpartisan career workers reduces the agency’s competence and expertise. Hiring based on ideological purity likely cuts the candidate pool by at least half. Stripping jobs of employment protections makes it harder to attract qualified experts. There are real reforms that could improve the agency’s accountability and responsiveness, but Schedule F is not one of them. 

Conclusion

“As a retired Army officer and a former VA employee, I understand the importance of consistently performing one’s duties at the highest standards all the time without regard to the distraction of political considerations. … I am certain that reinstatement of Schedule F would create unsustainable turnover and perverse incentives that would discourage the best and brightest, like those with whom I worked, from accepting a calling to serve our Veterans.”

-Anonymous Veteran

The array of services the VA provides is expanding — necessarily so — and it is becoming more important that the people responsible for providing those services be the most qualified and be hired because of their expertise and commitment to serving all veterans. For example, the demographics of the military are diversifying to better reflect the U.S. population, resulting in an increasing number of female, Hispanic, and Black veterans who may have differing health needs. In addition, the government is also beginning to acknowledge past exposure to hazardous materials. So as Congress authorizes improved and expanded veteran benefits, as they did with the recently passed PACT Act granting benefits to veterans who had been exposed to toxic substances like Agent Orange or toxins from burn pits, the need to provide nonpartisan quality service to the veteran community will increase. It is all the more critical that serving veterans be entrusted to qualified experts who are committed to ensuring that service above all else. 

Schedule F would threaten the careers and livelihoods of people who serve veterans, and make it more difficult to find qualified replacements who will accept jobs with fewer rights. It would further incentivize VA employees at every level to protect the agency’s public image and to do whatever a president or political appointee orders them to do, regardless of the consequences to the veterans entrusted into their care.

Rather than creating an efficient federal workforce, Schedule F will create a workforce that puts party politics above the rights, benefits, health, and safety of veterans. It will be the veterans themselves who suffer most in the end.


* POGO issued a survey via the organization Common Defense, which asked veterans for their opinions about how they think changing job protections for VA employees would impact policies concerning veterans, and the services, benefits, and care that the federal government provides to veterans. Quotes throughout this piece are taken directly from veterans’ responses.

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