August 8, 2003
Warner May Make The Deciding Call On Pentagon's Civil Service Plan
By Stephen Barr
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) likely will play the pivotal role in deciding how much power to grant the Pentagon for an overhaul of pay and personnel rules covering about 735,000 civil service employees -- about a third of all government civilian workers.
The Defense Department is seeking congressional approval to establish a pay-for-performance system, use faster hiring methods and elevate union issues to the national level rather than negotiate them through about 1,300 local bargaining units.
The Pentagon's plan to revamp its civil service work rules is under negotiation as part of the fiscal 2004 defense authorization bill. The policies set by House and Senate negotiators likely will spill over into the rest of the government and accelerate changes in how other civilian employees are paid and managed, experts predict.
The House and Senate bills would allow Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to achieve most of his priorities, according to congressional aides who have studied the issues. Overall, the House bill would give Rumsfeld about 75 percent of what he wants; the Senate bill takes a more prescriptive approach and would maintain key parts of current civil service law on labor-management relations and employee appeal rights.
The congressional negotiators are split into two primary camps, according to Capitol Hill aides.
On the House side, Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, are championing much of Rumsfeld's plan, especially his call for more discretion in how Defense conducts labor-management relations and handles appeals from employees in disciplinary cases.
On the Senate side, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), a member of Armed Services and Governmental Affairs, and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who chairs an Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, have lined up to argue that a bill crafted by Collins would do a better job of striking the right balance between the department and its employees.
The two sides appear unwilling to give ground on some issues, leaving it to Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to broker a compromise or decide which version to adopt, according to congressional aides.
Warner has kept silent on what he thinks of the Rumsfeld plan during the closed-door negotiations, congressional aides said.
Like many lawmakers, Warner does not want to thwart Rumsfeld's efforts at "defense transformation" after the quick campaign to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Warner also believes deeply in the nobility of public service, has many military and civil service personnel as constituents and has backed efforts to improve the pay and benefits of the federal workforce.
"Senator Warner supports the department's need for flexibility but fully appreciates the concerns of federal employees as well. He is optimistic that the conferees will arrive at the proper solution," Warner spokesman John Ullyot said.
Warner declined a request for an interview on the House-Senate conference, which probably will vote out a bill in September.
The House included much of Rumsfeld's civil service overhaul in its defense authorization bill. But the Senate version carries no civil service provision because an amendment was blocked by the chamber's parliamentarian. As a result, Collins reshaped Rumsfeld's plan in the Governmental Affairs Committee, where the proposal was approved on a vote of 10 to 1.
This month, Collins and three co-sponsors -- Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) -- wrote to their Senate GOP colleagues in the conference urging them to support the Governmental Affairs approach.
"As a template for future government-wide civilian personnel reform, the personnel provisions in the defense bill must strike the right balance between promoting a flexible system and protecting the rights of our constituents who serve in the federal civil service," the four senators said.