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Hill Moves Closer to Veterans Hiring Preferences

Seven years after Congress passed a law giving military veterans hiring preference for many legislative branch jobs, the institution has yet to implement the statute. But veterans came one step closer this month.

The Office of Compliance recently issued proposed rules outlining how Congress could go about applying the Veterans’ Employment Opportunities Act to its own employees. The act allows favored hiring opportunities for veterans in Congressional support agencies, similar to what veterans have enjoyed for years in the executive branch.

Although the law is not applicable to Members’ personal offices and Congressional committees, it could affect thousands of nonlegislative positions on Capitol Hill, including employees for the Architect of the Capitol.

Even if the proposed regulations become final in their current form — and that would be months off, if it happens — it’s unclear exactly which agencies and positions would be directly affected. The statute’s complexity and the difficulty of applying hiring preferences designed for the executive branch to Congress, which doesn’t operate under a system of “competitive service,” make such estimations nearly impossible.

As the VEOA is applied in much of the executive branch, a veteran receives additional points on a numerically scored application, ensuring that he or she would be hired over an otherwise similarly qualified candidate. Congress does not have a comparable personnel system.

Much of the lag between the law’s enactment in 1998 and its implementation in the legislative branch is the result of that disparity.

Regardless of the whys or hows, some veterans’ groups are not happy about the delay.

“We would think they should be the … model branch of the government,” said Jim Magill, director of employment policy for Veterans of Foreign Wars. “If they propose the laws and they pass the laws and send the laws to the president for enactment, you would hope they would be abiding by them.”

Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, said Congress adopting regulations to implement the statute would “certainly strengthen their moral standing” in sending troops to war.

The Office of Compliance first issued proposed regulations in 2001, but they were never released in final form, due in large part to opposition from relevant agencies and indifference among Members.

The Congressional Accountability Act created the Office of Compliance as an independent agency within the legislative branch to administer the 1995 law, which applied 11 federal workplace and antidiscrimination laws to Congress for the first time. The VEOA became the 12th statute under the CAA.

Comments on the Office of Compliance’s first proposed regulations in 2001 — from the Architect of the Capitol, the House Employment Counsel’s office and the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment’s office — were unanimously critical.

The regulations were faulted for trying to “place a square peg in a round hole,” and the agencies complained the regulations were “foreign” and “inapplicable” to Congress’ personnel system. Essentially, the agencies accused the Office of Compliance of trying to install a civil service system on Capitol Hill.

Ironically, by the board’s own admission, the proposed regulations issued by the Office of Compliance the first time around likely would have applied to no one. That was because the board determined that no employees on the Hill worked under a personnel system comparable to the executive branch’s competitive service.

The possible exception would have been some Architect of the Capitol employees. In the background submitted for the Congressional Record last month, the board pointed out that AOC positions were similar enough to the competitive service to easily apply veterans hiring preferences.

But in comments the agency submitted to the Office of Compliance in early 2002, the AOC maintained that a competitive service system did not exist within the AOC, and thus the VEOA was not easily applicable.

Spokeswoman Eva Malecki said that although the AOC does have a “competitive” hiring process, “That process is different and the terminology and the regulations and the process are different than in the executive branch.”

A 1994 law ostensibly put the AOC under a merit-based personnel system. Whether such a system actually exists within the AOC in a meaningful way is the subject of dispute. The AOC claims such a system has been in place since 1994, but recent Government Accountability Office studies have indicated that management has a long way to go “to further develop and consistently apply transparent human capital policies” consistent with that law.

But regardless of whether the AOC’s personnel structure easily facilitated adoption of veterans hiring preferences, the VEOA did little to explain how a law written for the executive branch was to apply to Congress, which has more flexible hiring practices.

After several years of meeting with affected agencies, the Office of Compliance decided to start the regulations process over.

“The board itself took a lead in drafting these regulations,” OOC Executive Director Bill Thompson said. “The board and the executive staff of the office has engaged in an extensive series of meetings and discussions with stakeholders across the legislative branch in advance of the final drafting of these new regulations.”

The proposed rules are now in a 30-day comment period that ends March 18.

This time around, the board decided to put the onus on Congressional agencies to determine how to implement hiring preferences for veterans and to report back to the Office of Compliance within 90 days of the rules being ratified by Congress.

“We will require that such measures be substantive and verifiable. Otherwise, VEOA implementation would by illusory,” the board of directors wrote in their mandatory submissions in the Congressional Record.

So even though it is not clear to the Office of Compliance exactly how the VEOA can be incorporated into the hiring practices of Congressional support agencies, the office maintains that the law nonetheless contains a “clear statutory mandate” for veterans to receive preference in hiring and work force reductions.

“The office hopes that these proposed regulations fully implement the intent of the VEOA but do so within the radically different personnel context within the legislative branch,” Thompson said.

But ultimately it’s up to Congress to decide whether to apply the regulations. The CAA requires the institution to approve substantive regulations issued by the Office of Compliance. “That’s a travesty that they have not done it, especially since they were the ones that introduced the legislation to begin with,” Magill said.

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