On Thursday morning, a banner reading, “FIRETHESWAMP.COM” flew over Washington, D.C. as congressmen and staffers went to work. The website advocates broad-based civil service reform, expanding the reforms passed at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) to the rest of the federal government. In light of the Supreme Court’s Wednesday ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, public employee unions may not be able to prevent such reform.
“The only way to drain the swamp is to fire the swamp,” Natalia Castro, public outreach coordinator at Americans for Limited Government (ALG) told PJ Media. “We need to be able to fire underperforming employees.”
Government employees enjoy many privileges and immunities that make the process of terminating bad employees long and arduous. This has created an toxic culture where a lack of accountability fosters poor performance, wasting taxpayer dollars and creating numerous scandals. ALG launched the “Fire the Swamp” campaign to fix that.
During the Obama presidency, scandal after scandal came out of the VA. Veterans died while waiting on secret wait lists. Staffers attempted to fire whistleblowers. A VA doctor gave out painkiller prescriptions like candy, leading a Wisconsin VA to be dubbed “Candy Land.”
Sharon Helman, director at the Phoenix VA, was not fired until six months after the wait list scandal broke. After she was fired, she continued to collect pay on leave. She pled guilty to a felony, but she appealed her firing to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and a federal appeals court ruled her firing unconstitutional. Last year, President Trump finally fixed this loophole, but just for the VA.
According to Castro, the VA scandals “opened the floodgates of stories of abuse.” In 2013, a special agent at the Atlanta office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sold multiple EPA cameras and camcorders at a pawnshop, costing the government $3,117. The U.S. attorney declined federal prosecution, but the employee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation on a felony conviction. The supervisor proposed a suspension — not firing — of only 120 days. But it gets worse.
After the employee appealed, the suspension was downgraded to 30 days. Yes, an EPA employee stole $3,000 in cameras, pawned them, was convicted of a felony, and kept her job with a slap on the wrist.
One employee was a registered sex offender and used a fabricated credential to run traffic lights. The emergency lights he installed on his vehicle violated his probation for the sex offender charge. He had been told to remove all law enforcement equipment from his vehicle in 1999. In 2006, the government declined to prosecute him, and in August 2013, he was finally arrested on probation violation.
He was finally fired in January 2014, but the MSPB overturned his termination and ordered him re-hired by the EPA. He went back to work in September 2014. The EPA had to bargain for his firing, which finally happened in January 2015.
“He was a registered sex offender and was pretending to be an EPA enforcement officer, for several years, and nothing was done, for years on end,” Castro noted. “The EPA tried to fire him, he fought back, and it ended up being almost two years of litigation before he could be removed from office.”
“It is nearly impossible to remove poor performing employees and that’s why we need some form of accountability measure to be passed,” she said.
Castro noted that after the VA Accountability Act was implemented, lowering the standard for firing, VA terminations increased by 26 percent. This proved that “it is possible to enact reform in our civil service.”
Not all stories of abuse are as jaw-dropping as veterans dying with maggots in their wounds or waiting for months on end for service at the VA. Even so, broad-based reform is essential.
“Just because these aren’t stories about veterans dying doesn’t mean they’re not creating inefficiency, wasting taxpayer money, and allowing poor-performing employees to get away with not doing their jobs at the office,” the ALG spokeswoman said.
The Merit Act, sponsored by Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), would “take that VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, and put those standards for removing civil servants all over the government,” Castro explained. ALG supports the bill, and the Fire the Swamp campaign intends to draw attention to it.
“If we already agreed that this is necessary in one agency, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be necessary in every single agency,” the ALG spokeswoman declared.
While the legislation should enjoy broad support, public employee unions firmly oppose it. “They enjoy an environment where employees cannot get fired,” Castro explained. She mentioned the Janus decision, which enables public employees to refuse to pay “agency fees” to public sector unions. Recent history suggests that this decision will cost unions 20 percent of their membership, and significantly deplete their coffers.
This is a good thing, not just for the workers who will no longer be forced to pay to support unions they oppose, but also for other employees.
“When managers cannot fire poor-performing employees, that doesn’t help employees,” Castro argued. “That creates a toxic environment for employees. The unions aren’t protecting employees when they shoot down this civil service reform.”