The one employee left on this federal board is about to leave

By Lisa Rein | Washington Post

Mark Robbins soon will pack up his belongings from his sixth-floor corner office, ride the elevator to the lobby on M Street in downtown Washington for the last time, and leave behind 240 employees and a federal agency that could be leaderless.

His departure as acting chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, which serves as a personnel court for federal employees, raises an existential question: Can the board still live and function with no one at the top? The answer could determine whether thousands of federal workers will have their grievances heard.

Two of the board’s three seats have been vacant for the entire Trump administration. President Donald Trump didn’t nominate a new board for more than a year – and then a Senate committee deadlocked last year on his nominees. Now, the third seat could be empty, too, unless the Senate can confirm the same three nominees who previously could not win lawmakers’ support.

Experts say they’ve never heard of a similar case. At midnight on Feb. 28 – when a one-year extension of Robbins’ seven-year term expires – the board could enter uncertain legal territory. Justice Department attorneys have told Robbins that once he leaves, the office could be operating illegally.

House and Senate lawmakers, scrambling to head off a crisis, have scheduled hearings for this week.

Coming after the recent partial government shutdown and with another possible shutdown lurking later this week, the quagmire at the board is another blow for federal workers. Employees who have been waiting for their appeals of firings, demotions, suspensions and alleged misconduct to be heard will have to wait longer; even if a new board were appointed soon, it could take two years to eliminate the backlog.

The board has been “basically neutered, and I think it’s ridiculous,” said John Palguta, a retired director of the board’s research department. “It’s not overly dramatic to say that the civil service is at risk here.”

The board has evaded the crosshairs of a White House that has proposed eliminating or slashing the budgets of dozens of small agencies. But in an administration determined to shrink government and with it protections for civil servants, the quasi-judicial merit systems board has been kept more or less frozen in time.

“The context of what’s happening here,” said Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly, whose northern Virginia district includes tens of thousands of civil servants, “is an administration that’s hostile to employee rights. This seems deliberate and by design.” A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The agency, with eight regional offices, was created in 1978 to ensure that personnel decisions in the executive branch are free from partisan politics. Administrative judges hear complaints from employees, and their rulings can be appealed to the three-member, bipartisan board. Members serve staggered terms.

With two of the three seats vacant for more than two years, the board has been unable to render decisions. During his lonely tenure, Robbins dutifully has written his opinion on 1,900 cases and filed them in …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Business


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