Subcommittee Examines Federal Hiring Recommendations from National Commission

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s Opening Statement and Q&A

WASHINGTON, DC – The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, under the chairmanship of Senator James Lankford (R-OK), today held a hearing entitled, “Improving Public Service: A Review of Recommendations Made by the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service.” Members of the Subcommittee heard from the chairman of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service along with a commissioner on their challenges in the federal hiring process. Lankford pushed on the Commission’s proposal for the use of veterans’ preference in the federal hiring process.

The Commission released a report in March to address civic education, the federal workforce, national service programs, military service, and the selective service system. The report was commissioned by Congress in 2017. This was an opportunity to hear about their findings and for Congress to consider their recommendations. In 2019, the Subcommittee held a hearing on the improvements needed for federal workforce hiring.


Lankford: Let me go to one of the most controversial portions of your recommendation that is dealing with veterans’ preference. You made some pretty extensive recommendations on veterans’ preference—both of you being veterans—I know you interviewed a lot of veterans. I know you also talked to a lot of the CHCO and people in HR. This has come up before this committee numerous times—the issue of veterans’ preference and some of the challenges around it to make it work well. So you made several specific recommendations on this which I appreciate very much, but I wanted to be able to drill down on some of those. Let me begin with the most basic that some people watching this may not know. Do all veterans get the veterans’ preference?

Chairman Joseph Heck:  No.

Lankford: I think that’s a big shift in this—that a lot of people don’t know already that many veterans do not get veterans’ preference. Were you able to determine how many veterans do not get access to veterans’ preference? That is, they didn’t have a service disability or were in certain military overseas campaigns. 

Heck: No, unfortunately, we are unable to pull that data as hard as we tried from OPM.

Lankford: OK, that’s a significant number though that we know out there. So, your recommendation was to be able to change veterans’ preference to a tiebreaker and also to give two years—that you could use it up to 10 years on a time limit but the first two is… So, walk me through, briefly, that. Then I want to ask you some specific questions—why those numbers?


Heck: Yeah, great, thanks, Senator. I know your lead-in was that it’s a controversial recommendation. Changing veterans’ preference has been deemed to be controversial in the past. Certainly, the last major attempt was when the late Senator John McCain tried to make a change, which didn’t go far. So, our approach was, you can’t nibble around the edges. You’ve got to make comprehensive, holistic changes as a package. Right? So this is really not trying to change one piece but coming in and redesigning veterans’ preference so that it is more in tune with the younger veterans leaving service and being used to help that veteran transition to the federal workforce. So as you all probably know, a veteran who comes in to try to utilize his veterans’ preference or her veterans’ preference even if judged as minimally qualified can float to the top of the most highly qualified list and be hired over other better-qualified candidates. Now, why is that a problem? One is that you are probably putting a veteran into a job which they are probably not qualified—they only getting it based on the preference. So, they cannot perform. They become disenfranchised as a federal government employee and decide to leave federal service. Or, you have a supervisor who has an employee who can’t do the job that they were required to take and they then say this isn’t working. We’ve gotta go find some other type of hiring authority to get around this list. And so you get the direct-hire authority, right? And that’s how you get to 105 different hiring authorities when you’re trying to circumvent one that is already there. Or thirdly, they send the list back without taking anybody off the list, which then further delays their ability to hire the best and brightest. When veterans’ preference was first envisioned, it was meant to be a tie-breaker between two similarly qualified individuals—that the veteran should get the leg-up into the position. So we say, return it to what is was envisioned. The tie-breaker between two similarly situated and qualified individuals. We then take it to say, you can only use it for the first 10 years post-separation. And then, we give you one chance to re-use it within the first two years. So, you come in and take a job. It may not be the right job for you. Right? But you to have exhausted your veterans’ preference for a bad choice. So, if within the first two years which is when most people will recognize that they are in a bad job that’s not meant for them you can get to use it again to move to another position within the federal workforce. What we have found is that many individuals once they get in with the veterans’ preference continue to use it over and over and over again through their 20 and 30-year career to move to other positions within the federal workforce, which really is not the purpose behind the veterans’ preference. The other piece which I think is just as important is the expansion of the Veterans Recruitment Appointment or VRA. The only issue is you only get three years to use VRA post-separation. Well, if a veteran is going to take advantage of the very generous GI bill and go for a four-year college degree they have lost the opportunity to use VRA by the time they have graduated. So we extend VRA out for 10 years as well so that individuals have the opportunity to fully utilize their GI bill, get a degree, get a certificate, get whatever education they need because that will make them a better qualified federal employee and not take away from them a benefit to which they are entitled. Now we have talked to most of the VSOs about this, and as we’ve explained it most of them have said what you are offering makes perfect sense. So we would hope that this time around it is not as controversial as it has been in the past.

Lankford: So let me ask you the 10-year time period. I’ve heard some of the veterans’ groups have come back and said you’re a veteran for life, why can’t you be a veteran for life with this program as well? Why 10-years rather than a lifetime?

Heck: We feel as we’ve talked to numerous veterans that have been 10, 15 years post-service and those just separating, as we travel the country, the goal is to try to provide an opportunity for younger veterans that are recently separated to get their first entrance into the federal government and that they should be the ones that are able to utilize their veterans preference to get that job. If you’ve already utilized your veterans’ preference and you’re coming in you should not—in our opinion—have the opportunity to use it again to bounce around the federal service. And, the questions are, if you’ve been out for 10 years and you’ve tried it on the private sector and now you decide you want to come into the federal sector it does not coincide with what we believe it should be used for which is trying to get that newly separated veteran into the federal government as quickly as possible. 

Lankford: This is a very interesting proposal. There has been a lot of conversation about veterans’ preference trying to be able to make sure we honor our veterans and to be able to give them every opportunity to come into the federal workforce. Very high percentage of veterans across the workforce—I am very, very grateful for their engagement and their continued public service. But it has been a challenge to try to be able to deal with what you appropriately call floating in the process for someone who may be minimally qualified ends up rising to the top as best qualified and skips over some other folks that may be better qualified. We’re not trying to block someone from it but maybe in the wrong position… and be able to figure out where is the best place to put them in leadership in the different agencies.

CLICK HERE to view the full hearing video and opening statements.