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Despite the Scandals, Obama Officials Defend High Pay, Bonuses for Senior Government Workers


"We must rely on tools such as incentives and awards that recognize superior performance."

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Obama administration officials on Friday defended the high pay and thousands of dollars in bonuses that senior government workers receive, despite major policy failures such as the rollout of Obamacare and control of the southern U.S. border, and scandals at the IRS and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

At a House hearing Friday, a representative of Senior Executive Service officials even blamed political appointees for widespread performance failures in the government.

Former IRS official Lois Lerner was a former member of the Senior Executive Service who retired after the IRS targeting scandal broke. Obama administration officials on Friday defended the high pay and bonuses awarded to SES officials. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) chaired a hearing Friday in which he argued that SES officials continue to receive high pay, big bonuses, and job security at a time of countless government scandals.

"We've seen scandals like a senior executive relaxing in a hot tub with a glass of wine on the taxpayer's dime, while another refuses to cooperate with Congress despite her admission that her employing agency targeted conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status," Farenthold said, referring to former IRS employee Lois Lerner.

Farenthold said the base pay of SES officials is $181,000, and they get tens of thousands of dollars worth of fringe benefits, and also receive bonuses. But he said said many SES workers are calling for even higher pay.

Two Obama administration officials defended the perks of SES workers by saying these employees run critical parts of the government. Stephen Shih, a deputy associate director at the Office of Personnel Management, said SES officials are being forced to work harder, sometimes with no increase in pay.

"SES members have remained committed to public service while taking on more responsibilities with significantly-reduced resources and negligible increases in compensation, if at all," he said.

Shih also added that SES workers are paid "based on their performance, and they are subject to removal from the SES for performance."

But Farenthold and others on the committee argued that nearly all SES workers routinely receive excellent reviews. Last month, a VA official acknowledged to Congress that of the 7,000 SES officials, only three received "unsatisfactory" performance reviews — every other rating is "minimally satisfactory" or higher.

The VA has acknowledged that for the last four years, every SES official on staff was rated "fully successful" or higher. In 2013, 78 percent of all SES workers at the VA were given bonuses, and these bonuses have exceeded $14 million over the last four years.

Sam Retherford, principal deputy assistant secretary for human resources at the VA, defended the high pay and bonuses for SES officials at his department by saying the government needs to attract competent workers.

"We are competing in tough labor markets for skilled personnel, both in the public and private sector," he said. "To remain competitive in recruiting and retaining the best personnel to serve our Veterans, we must rely on tools such as incentives and awards that recognize superior performance."

But despite those awards, the VA has been exposed as being rife with systemic flaws, as officials have conspired to keep veterans from receiving medical care, and also to cover up those efforts.

Carol Bonosar is president of the Senior Executives Association, a group that represents current and retired SES officials. She rejected the idea that SES officials are responsible at all for the various scandals, and blamed political appointees.

"Several so-called 'scandals' have surfaced and the entire federal workforce (and in particular the SES corps) is bearing the brunt of poor judgment and damaging actions committed by a few," she said in her prepared remarks.

"[T]here is a growing sense among career executives that administration political appointees are under-utilizing their talents, undervaluing their contributions, questioning their expertise and judgment, and not being fully supportive during these difficult times."

In June, Bonosar's group came out against the Senate's VA reform bill that called for an expedited process of firing SES officials involved in the VA healthcare scandal.

Farenthold pointed out at the hearing that the compensation packages for SES officials include bonuses, and asked Retherford if that makes it too easy to award bonuses when they are not warranted by performance.

"That is not necessarily so," replied Retherford, who said only one-fifth of all SES officials at the VA received the very highest performance rating.

Farenthold also pressed for an explanation of why SES officials at the VA charged an average of 90 days of administrative leave, compared to the average of four days across the entire government. When Farenthold asked why VA officials are taking so much more leave time, Retherford replied, "I don't have the information on that."

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) used the hearing to raise questions about whether bonuses to SES officials can be taken back once they are awarded, if new information is revealed indicating the bonuses were not warranted. Retherford said bonuses cannot be taken back, which prompted Lynch to say he would soon propose legislation to fix this problem.

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