Commentary: Rumsfeld’s gone, but his failed personnel plan lives on


March 27, 2007

Although several months removed from his post as secretary, Donald Rumsfeld is having a lasting effect on policies at the Defense Department. There is no better example than the National Security Personnel System, a controversial personnel system reform that surprisingly remains a priority under Secretary Robert Gates. Although implementation of the system has been stalled by a federal court injunction saying the agency overstepped its authority given by Congress, DoD continues to push for Rumsfeld’s restructuring.

NSPS was conceived in 2003 when then-Secretary Rumsfeld presented his personnel reform plan to Congress. His proposal asked for the authority to waive numerous chapters of federal labor law so the agency would have the flexibility to implement what were supposed to be common-sense reforms to improve employee performance and help the agency carry out its mission — reforms such as expediting hiring and firing practices, improving the agency’s ability to reward high performers, and moving to national-level bargaining with unions.

After receiving the authority from lawmakers to create NSPS, Rumsfeld put forward a plan that scarcely resembled the one brought to Congress. The agency abandoned its widely supported common-sense reforms and replaced them with ideology-based initiatives. The revised plan would eliminate meaningful collective bargaining and would abolish the fair system of appeal that employees currently have (and deserve).

The plan would also move DoD workers into a subjective pay system. While more flexible, the pay system would open up workers to the possibility of favoritism from supervisors. The plan also fails to guarantee a consistent level of overall pay for the federal work force and leaves open the possibility that Defense workers’ pay will be flat-lined, reducing buying power over time. This would widen the pay gap that exists today between federal workers and those in the private sector.

It was no surprise to anyone familiar with NSPS when the courts ruled against DoD on many of its reforms. What has been shocking is that, despite the ruling and a significant change in the political climate since 2003, the Pentagon would continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to implement Rumsfeld’s failed plan. At any point, the agency could drop the contentious pieces of the reform and develop a system that is in line with the authorities granted by Congress; yet a year after the ruling from the U.S.

District Court for the District of Columbia, Rumsfeld’s brainchild is unchanged. Given DoD’s refusal to compromise, it is not surprising that Defense workers’ unions are calling for a repeal of NSPS, and nobody should be shocked if Congress takes action to scale back the authorities given to the Pentagon for personnel changes.

On March 6, Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, took the lead on oversight of NSPS by calling a hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness, which he chairs. It was the first oversight hearing on NSPS since the plan was authorized. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle took the opportunity to demand answers from Michael Dominguez, one of the Pentagon’s point people on NSPS.

Dominguez’s testimony was met with harsh criticism when lawmakers challenged him on

the necessity of making sweeping changes in the name of national security and the reluctance of the Pentagon to allow meaningful input into the system from employee representatives. In short, the subcommittee took exception to the Pentagon’s continued Rumsfeld-style approach of dealing with Congress — that is, to use national security as a pretense to do whatever it wants.

At the hearing, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said as much: “The shadow of Donald Rumsfeld is still around,” he said. “This system was his creation, and I feel like it is another failed policy.”

Gates’ arrival at the department brought a level of optimism that the arrogance that was characteristic of Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was gone. NSPS is evidence that the influence of the former secretary is still alive. The original policies continue to thrive, and optimism about a new course for the Pentagon is dwindling.

Richard Brown is president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a labor union that represents 45,000 Defense Department workers. This piece was written on behalf of the United DoD Workers Coalition, a coalition of 36 labor organizations that collectively represent 750,000 Defense civilian employees.