McCain abandons plan to weaken vets' leg up in federal hiring

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes

McCain abandons plan to weaken vets' leg up in federal hiring

by: Lisa Rein | .
The Washington Post | .
published: October 07, 2016

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has abandoned a proposal he pushed through the Senate that would knock out a key advantage for veterans applying for federal jobs, following pressure from the powerful veterans lobby.

The senator, locked in his toughest reelection fight in two decades in a state filled with former service members, told the American Legion late Tuesday that he will remove language from a military policy bill that would have taken away a veteran's right to go to the head of the federal hiring queue not once but twice.

Veterans get preference over civilian applicants not just when they are applying for their first positions -- but also when they move between agencies or seek promotion. The leg up the second time around will now stay in place.

The about-face from the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman concerned one of the most sensitive issues facing the federal government as it seeks to replace a wave of retirees. It came after a three-month campaign by leading service organizations to stop the change, which was under negotiation with the House as part of the vast defense bill. The House version did not include changes to veterans preference.

"Given your [The American Legion] and others' concerns, I will ensure that this provision, which is not included in the House bill, is not included in the NDAA conference report," McCain wrote in a letter to the Legion, referring to the National Defense Authorization Act.

McCain is the solid favorite to beat Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D, in November. But veterans' care has been a prominent issue in the race, and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has criticized McCain for not doing enough to help veterans. In that environment, a change to hiring laws appeared politically toxic.

McCain, who spent five-and-a-half years in a North Vietnamese prison cell during the Vietnam War, is a longtime champion for veterans but has at times been at odds with their advocacy organizations on issues concerning government benefits. He has been sensitive to concerns about a five-year-old Obama administration policy that is boosting the hiring of veterans across government.

Top Defense Department officials had urged the senator and his colleagues to weaken the preference policy. They argued that bumping veterans to the top of the hiring list for some specialized and hard-to-fill jobs was making it impossible for qualified non-veterans to get hired. The change would have applied government-wide.

In June, McCain told the Post, "We must balance the goals of rewarding those who are eligible for a federal hiring advantage with the needs of the federal government. . . and hire the best talent for a variety of important national security jobs."

He said the defense bill "achieves this balance by ensuring veterans still have the ability to get a foot in the door for federal civilian employment, after which they stand on merit."

"A lot of politicians throw things on the wall to see if they'll stick," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Obviously, this particular suggestion did not stick."

The VFW, working with the Legion and other groups, energized its base with a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress to oppose the change, which had flown under the radar even after it passed the Senate. The letters opposed eroding any benefit for former service members who lost valuable time developing their civilian careers while they served their country.

"We appreciate Sen. McCain's stalwart defense of an important benefit for all veterans who've served and sacrificed for their country," American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt said in a statement.

The Legion said that research conducted by VetAdvisor and Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families shows that approximately two-thirds of veterans are likely to change jobs in the first two years of employment.

Almost 1 in 2 people hired to permanent, non-seasonal federal jobs in fiscal 2014 were veterans, with former service members making up 47.4 percent of new hires to full-time positions.