September 10, 2003

House rejects OMB's job competition revisions

By Amelia Gruber

The House on Tuesday night passed an $89.3 billion budget bill that includes language unraveling the Office of Management and Budget's latest revisions to rules on public-private job competitions.

Following a floor debate, lawmakers approved an amendment to the 2004 Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill (H.R. 2989) that would discard OMB's May changes to Circular A-76 by a vote of 220 to 198. The amendment, offered by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would require OMB to rethink several controversial measures in the revised circular, including a requirement that in-house teams winning competitions re-compete for work every five years.

Van Hollen's language does not block competitions altogether, but it would force federal agencies receiving federal funds to play by the old competitive sourcing rules until OMB comes up with guidelines satisfying contractors and federal agencies.

Lawmakers rejected by a margin of six votes a second amendment designed to slow Bush's competitive sourcing initiative. That measure, offered by Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., would have barred OMB from using appropriated funds to develop inventories of "inherently governmental" jobs. The amendment would have also blocked money for running streamlined competitions involving fewer than 65 full-time equivalent positions.

President Bush has threatened to veto the appropriations bill if the final version contains any provisions hindering his administration's competitive sourcing initiative. The initiative is one component of a broader five-part management agenda.

Despite the defeat of Hastings' provision, the American Federation of Government Employees applauded the House version of the budget legislation. Van Hollen's measure will give OMB a chance to rewrite the A-76 Circular in a manner that balances "the interests of federal employees and contractors while ensuring that taxpayers are protected from wasteful spending," said John Gage, AFGE's president.

"Federal employees are more than willing to submit to a competitive process, but they shouldn't be asked to do it with one hand tied behind their backs," Van Hollen said in a statement following the vote. He criticized the revised Circular A-76 as "part of an ideologically driven agenda to benefit private contractors over federal employees."

But Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said that while OMB's A-76 revisions are not perfect, they represent the first major overhaul of competitive sourcing in 20 years and are an improvement over the old guidelines. OMB arrived at the changes after extensive consultations with federal agencies, contractors, outside experts and other interested parties, Davis noted during debate over the amendment. He urged fellow lawmakers to give the revised circular a chance before "willy-nilly" reverting to the old process.

"They spent a lot of time [changing the circular]," Van Hollen said. "But they didn't get it right."

Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., R-Okla., tried to convince fellow lawmakers that Bush's veto threat was reason enough to vote against the amendment. "If you want to kill the bill, oh sure, go ahead and vote for the amendment," Istook said. "This bill is too important for that."

Van Hollen's amendment will now face a battle when the budget bill enters House-Senate negotiations. In the past, conferees have eliminated language on competitive sourcing from final versions of legislation.

For instance, a Senate-passed provision in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill protecting air traffic controllers from public-private competitions died during conference. And negotiators dropped language from the fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations bill that would have prohibited OMB from setting numerical targets for competitive sourcing.