November 7, 2003

House approves Defense personnel overhaul

By Shawn Zeller

The House voted Friday morning to approve the fiscal 2004 Defense Department authorization bill, including provisions that would allow Pentagon officials to overhaul the department's civilian personnel system.

The bill passed on 362-40 vote.

Last-minute snags slowed completion of the conference report on the bill Thursday night, but negotiators averted a potential crisis. A Senate vote on the bill is expected early next week.

House and Senate aides said one of the holdups involved negotiations on language acceptable to Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, on proposed civil service reforms.

Collins had criticized the Defense Department's plan to increase its flexibility in managing civilian personnel, giving managers far more control in hiring, firing and rewarding employees. Collins late Thursday was reported to have signed off on the agreement.

According to a Senate Armed Services Committee summary of the conference report, the National Security Personnel System created under the measure would:

Under the bill, Defense must work with the Office of Personnel Management and employee groups to develop and implement the new system.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., voted for the bill, but spoke out on the House floor in opposition to the civilian personnel provisions.

"Among its most egregious provisions, the legislation effectively grants the Secretary of Defense the authority to strip federal workers of their collective bargaining rights, deny employees their right to appeal unfair treatment, and grant supervisors complete discretion in setting salaries and determining raises," Hoyer said.

In April, the Bush administration sent a wide-ranging bill to Capitol Hill to free the Defense Department from the constraints of Title 5 of the U.S. Code, which includes federal civil service regulations. In May, the House included most of the administration's proposal in its version of the defense authorization bill.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee later passed a more restrictive bill. The full Senate never voted on that measure, but conference committee members agreed to consider the Senate committee's bill as a possible substitute for the House language.

The overhaul will affect more than 700,000 civilian employees at Defense, and could spell the end of the traditional federal civil service system. Congress has already exempted several agencies from the constraints of Title 5, and Defense is the largest federal agency still bound by its restrictions.

Federal employee unions have strongly criticized the Pentagon's efforts to overhaul its personnel system. Defense officials "want out of the people business," Jim Davis, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees, told Government Executive recently. "The bottom line is that they don't want employees.

They don't want to have to manage them. They don't want to have to provide for their retirements and medical insurance."

The House-passed Defense authorization bill also included a 3.7 percent across-the-board pay raise for all uniformed service personnel, and higher, targeted pay raises ranging from 5.25 to 6.25 percent for mid-career service members, for an overall average pay raise of 4.15 percent.

Amy Svitak of CongressDaily contributed to this report.