November 12, 2003

Defense personnel overhaul headed to President Bush

By Shawn Zeller

The Senate followed through on its compromise with House negotiators last week and voted 87 to 1 on Wednesday to give broad new authorities to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to redesign the civil service system governing the Defense Department's 700,000 civilian employees. The personnel reforms were part of a much larger bill authorizing Defense programs.

The House passed identical legislation last week, and the measure will now go to President Bush, who is expected to sign it. It will give Rumsfeld authority to throw out the half-century old General Schedule classification system and replace it with a new pay-for-performance system. It will also give Rumsfeld new authority to hire highly skilled workers more quickly, to promote top employees, and to fire poor ones. Defense officials will also be able to rewrite the rules governing collective bargaining with agency unions and establish a new internal appeals system for employees protesting disciplinary decisions.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, who brokered the compromise agreement with House negotiators, said the final bill, "while by no means perfect, is a reasonable compromise to the challenge of modernizing an outdated system while protecting employees' rights."

Top Senate Democrats - while still voting for the overall Defense authorization - criticized the personnel reforms.

"By giving the Secretary of Defense the authority to decide who reviews disputes, the issues to be reviewed and the standard of review, this bill appears to hand one party the final say on all labor and management issues," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. "This language is inconsistent with the concept of good faith bargaining between equals."

Union leaders were even more critical. "Rumsfeld's plan effectively discards critical civil service laws designed to put an end to a federal spoils system where patronage is rewarded and merit principles are a thing of the past," said American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage.

The bill, which is widely seen as a precursor to broader governmentwide civil service reforms, is already having implications beyond the Defense Department. The Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency that adjudicates disciplinary appeals, is considering the closure of its Seattle and Boston field offices in anticipation of

Defense creating its own internal appeals system. Between 15 and 18 MSPB judges could lose their jobs if the offices are closed. A final decision on the closures is slated for next week.