October 20, 2003
Legislative progress slow on Defense personnel reform
By Shawn Zeller
House and Senate negotiators working for the past two months to find compromise on civil service reform provisions in the Defense Department authorization bill have made little progress, according to Republican and Democratic congressional aides from both chambers.
Negotiations on the authorization bill have broken down over unrelated provisions that would require the Defense Department to purchase more of its equipment and technology from American companies. As a result, the civil service provisions have yet to receive the conferees' concerted attention.
"It's moving like molasses," said a spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "They are focusing on the 'Buy American' provisions and then will move on to the rest of the issues." Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, figures to be a key player in the negotiations. Last summer, she worked with committee Democrats to pass a bipartisan civil service reform bill out of her committee.
Collins' legislation would allow the Defense secretary to dispense with the General Schedule classification system and replace it with a more flexible, performance-based system. The bill would also make it easier for Defense to hire new employees by waiving cumbersome requirements in civil service law. But Collins' bill deviated from the Defense Department wish list in that it preserved collective bargaining and disciplinary appeal rights for civilian employees.
The House, by contrast, last spring passed a bill that for the most part mirrored a Defense Department proposal submitted to Congress last April. The legislation would give the Defense Secretary wide latitude to rewrite the department's civil service rules. The House approved the language over vehement Democratic objections.
The House then rolled its civil service reform measure into its version of the annual Defense authorization bill. The full Senate never passed Collins' bill, but conferees working to reconcile the House and Senate's differing Defense authorization bills agreed to consider Collins' bill as a possible substitute to the House's civil service language.
Congressional aides said they expect a battle when the negotiators turn to the civil service sections of the bill, but there also appears to be plenty of room for compromise. Collins, who brought her bill out of committee on a 10 to 1 vote, has worked closely with Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
During a committee hearing last May, Davis tried to assuage members reluctant to go along with the House legislation that mirrored the Defense Department's proposal. "We introduced the DoD bill because we thought we ought to introduce the bill as they wanted it," he said. "That's not going to be the bill that comes out of here. It's not going to be the bill that comes out of conference."
Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., who chairs Government Reform's Civil Service and Agency Organization Subcommittee, was among those committee members to express skepticism about the House bill during the hearings last spring. She said she feared that pressure from Republican leaders was forcing the committee to move too quickly, and she questioned one provision in the Defense proposal, which would strip the Office of Personnel Management of its authority to guide the creation of a new Defense personnel system.
But Republicans remain under heavy pressure from White House officials and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who have made the Defense civil service reforms a priority and favor the House language. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., one of the principal negotiators along with Collins, Davis and Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., is expected to push hard for the House language. A spokesman for Warner said he has not taken a public position on his preference.
Democrats, who prefer Collins' proposal, say that House and Senate Republican leaders have given them little say in the negotiations. The Democrats' chief goal, according to one top House Democratic aide, is to ensure that collective bargaining rights are preserved. The House version of the bill would allow the Defense secretary to waive those rights. Rumsfeld, in congressional testimony earlier this year, said the purpose of the waiver would be to allow Defense to negotiate solely with national union offices, rather than the myriad local offices with which the department must now deal.
Nonetheless, the Democratic aide said he expected little progress until negotiators come to a compromise on the Buy American provisions. Hunter has sought for weeks to include those provisions in the face of White House and Senate opposition. He and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz have been working to broker a compromise on the issue.
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