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Senate votes to scale back federal job preferences for veterans

By LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: June 20, 2016

This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON — A little-noticed provision of the massive defense bill the Senate passed last week would eliminate the preference veterans get once they are in the government and apply for another federal job. Former service members would still go to the head of the hiring queue. Top defense officials pressed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for the change, Senate aides said, to ensure that qualified non-veterans are considered equally with veterans for specialized, hard-to-fill positions.

The language, which will now head to conference with the House as part of the larger defense bill, would apply government-wide. It would affect thousands of veterans, many of whom get a foot in the door with an entry-level position and then seek jobs at other agencies.

The Defense Department and other agencies have sought for several years to tweak the veterans' preference law, a cornerstone of President Obama's push to reward retired troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Starting in 2009, Obama boosted the "extra credit" veterans get to give them a greater edge in getting federal jobs, setting hiring goals for them at each agency.

But the policy has led to frustration at many agencies that qualified non-veterans are getting shut out of federal jobs in deference to those who served but may not be qualified. Almost one in two hires to full-time, permanent federal jobs was a veteran in fiscal 2014, according to the Office of Personnel Management, which has not yet made more recent data public.

The American Legion said Congress would be eroding the contract between the country and its soldiers, who can lose valuable years building civilian job skills while they serve and deserve equal footing with non-veterans once they leave the military.

Barnett noted that veterans get extra points only "when prospective candidate qualifications are in equipoise," meaning when a veteran and non-veteran are equally qualified for the job.

The American Legion has plans for an emergency appeal this week to its 2.2 million members to write letters to their members of Congress to oppose the change. A high-profile lobbying effort is in the works, before Congress breaks for recess in a few weeks.

"We're taking this very seriously," said Louis J. Celli Jr. the American Legion's acting legislative director. "Right now, our battle is with the House conference committee." Other veterans groups also say they oppose the language.

A spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, Wash., are likely to serve on the conference panel, said the committee has not taken a position on the issue.

A McCain spokesman was not immediately available for comment on the American Legion's letter. McCain said last week that he does not think the Senate provision hurts veterans' preference but instead "balances the goals of rewarding those who are eligible for a federal hiring advantage with the needs of the federal government and notably the Department of Defense to attract and hire the best talent for a variety of important national security jobs."

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