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'National Security' Part Of Bush Plan To Gut Civil Services

POSTED: 4:19 p.m. EDT September 3, 2003

The Bush administration is evoking "national security" as a powerful weapon to accomplish its twin goals of privatizing thousands of federal jobs and taking a whack at government unions.

The administration's sales pitch is to raise the specter of terrorism and 9-11 -- a surefire way to scare Congress into backing plans to gut the Civil Service system.

Congress passed the Civil Service Act in 1883 to end the spoils system, which based federal employment on nepotism and cronyism.

The bad old days may be returning. I note the lack of competitive bids on some government contracts to rebuild Iraq and the appearance of favoritism in the administration's decisions to award contracts to politically influential companies.

John Gage, President of the AFL-CIO's American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), sees a trend. He predicts "a return to the spoils system for politically connected corporations and campaign contributors."

The administration's drive to cut down the size of the government and shift federal jobs and services to private contractors is a process known as "outsourcing."

Halliburton, the oil-field construction company, comes to mind as a firm that has perfected outsourcing.

Once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, Halliburton has received contracts for rebuilding Iraq totaling nearly $2 billion, not to mention the multimillion-dollar billings for cells it built for the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has given federal agencies until Oct. 31 to designate 15 percent of their jobs as "not inherently governmental" and, therefore, available for competitive outside contracts.

Strangely, despite all the concerns about airport security, the air traffic controllers were put in that category.

That would seem to be one area where the government would want to have more control on personnel selection. After all, before 9-11, airport security screeners had been employees of private companies.

Congress and the public later woke up to the fact that these private firms weren't up to the job of reliably protecting travelers.

The result was that Congress forced President Bush to accept new government agencies -- the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration -- to increase the federal role in safeguarding the public.

Even then, Bush held out for his personal goal of cutting the strength of federal employee unions in the new department.

The workers in 22 agencies who were shifted to the new Department of Homeland Security lost their basic collective bargaining rights.

Gage said the assault on the Civil Service system was "shocking and wrong."

"Our people are scared to death they'll lose their jobs and the Bush administration will try to dismantle the system," he said.

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., voted against creation of the Homeland Security Department in that form as part of his efforts to preserve the workers' union rights.

He paid the political price when he failed to win reelection last year after Bush went to Atlanta six times to campaign against him.

The Republican opposition played hard ball, calling Cleland -- who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam war -- "unpatriotic."

The administration is also locking and loading against any involvement of unions in the civilian workforces of the Pentagon and the Transportation Department.

In a power grab, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has drafted a plan that bars collective bargaining for the Pentagon's 640,000 civilian workers, eliminates due process in the workplace and promotes public-private competition for defense work.

Gage said the plan amounts to "contractors in, federal workers out."

The Rumsfeld plan was rammed through the House but was rejected in the Senate. The issue will be resolved in a conference committee.

Rumsfeld should stop tampering with the job security of Pentagon civilians and pay more attention to the two wars he is trying to run.

Gage said the moves to privatize the government payroll were a "grand slam" blow to the Civil Service system and organized labor.

Beyond what looks like a bow to big business, Karl Rove, the president's political guru, tipped the administration's hand on why the administration thinks federal workers are suspect.

In an interview in The New Yorker magazine on May 12, Rove said: "Bigger government strengthens the Democratic Party.

It generates federal employees who will mostly vote Democratic ... conversely, smaller government helps the Republicans."

And if the message hasn't sunk in, the president has more Labor Day good news for them.

Citing a national emergency, he plans to hold government civilian pay raises to 2 percent instead a 2.7 percent. Also ruled out was a proposed salary hike to make it comparable with the private pay scales in certain geographical areas.

As the nation's chief public servant, Bush should be protecting the rights of government employees who serve all Americans, not undermining them at their workplace.

(Helen Thomas can be reached at the e-mail address helent@hearstdc.com).




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