We’ve spent plenty of time here recently highlighting how difficult it is to fire incompetent or even criminal federal workers (particularly in the VA and the IRS) after they are identified. One of the typical routines which thwart efforts at accountability is the practice of putting workers on administrative leave (almost always with full pay and benefits) while the case is investigated and their union representatives fight tooth and nail to prevent their dismissal. In some cases, workers have remained in this permanent vacation status for years on end.

While I’m not getting my hopes up yet, the Senate moved this week to advance a bill which might finally rein in this process. (Government Executive)

A Senate panel on Wednesday approved a bipartisan bill that would strictly limit the ability of federal agencies to put employees on extended paid administrative leave while they are being investigated — an attempt to crack down on a practice that cost the government $3.1 billion from 2011 through 2013 alone.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee reported out S. 2450, along with several others bills, during a Wednesday markup. The 2016 Administrative Leave Act defines administrative leave as separate from other forms of paid leave or excused absence and limits its use to five consecutive days at a time.

I’m not sure how much real world effect this would have because the legislation also creates two new categories of leave for workers who wind up in such circumstances – investigative leave and notice leave. Thus far details are scarce as to what these actually mean, but presumably they may carry a bit more stigma while still allowing them to stay home on full pay. If nothing else, though, it might allow easier tracking of the problem in the future and provide more transparency to the taxpayers.

But what if this change really ushered some workers straight off the payroll? Five days as opposed to months or years on administrative leave would certainly represent a paradigm shift in how we handle disciplinary cases, but they’re going to have to get past the unions to manage this. And you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be screaming bloody murder the entire way. But let’s say for a moment that this bill somehow makes it through both chambers of Congress and gets a signature from the President. Will it really change anything? One would assume that under this new legislation, assuming they don’t shift into one of the new categories, after five days of administrative leave the employee would either be terminated or moved to some form of unpaid leave.

Nothing in this proposal seems to address the problem of The Merit Systems Protection Board, which we recently discussed. What good will a law do with the board standing in the way like a bridge troll? Let’s say you are caught sleeping on the job, downloading porn on your government computer or mainlining some heroin in the bathroom. Being a federal employee, of course you won’t be fired, but placed on administrative leave. If this law limits it to five days but your case is still under review, you are terminated or moved into some unpaid status. But then the board simply overrules the decision as they did in three high profile cases already this year.

What then? Will S. 2450 do anything to counter or somehow limit the power of the MSPB? Color me dubious.

ChuckGrassley