A bipartisan group of senators assailed a Bush administration plan to let private firms bid on thousands of federal jobs Wednesday, saying the measure could hamper federal recruiting efforts and weaken the civil service.
In a hearing room packed with members of the two largest federal employee unions, members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee took turns criticizing the Bush competitive sourcing initiative as an ill-conceived attempt to make federal agencies meet "arbitrary" outsourcing quotas. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the plan could sap employees from agencies already drained from downsizing ordered by the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
"I'm concerned that the benchmarks the administration has adopted for its competitive sourcing plan are arbitrary and potentially damaging, as was the Clinton administration's downsizing effort," Voinovich said. The Office of Management and Budget has directed agencies to directly outsource or hold public-private job competitions on 15 percent of federal jobs deemed "commercial" by the end of fiscal 2003 and has said agencies must eventually compete 50 percent of their commercial jobs.
Voinovich, who said he only learned of these requirements on Tuesday, repeatedly questioned Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Angela Styles over the origin of the competitive sourcing targets. When Styles replied that President Bush set the 50 percent mark himself, Voinovich said the President must have received poor advice and pledged to write a letter to Bush expressing his concerns. He also called on Styles to rethink the competitive sourcing initiative.
"That part of your management agenda ought to be reevaluated," Voinovich said. "To say you're going to have 15 percent… is ridiculous. The emphasis is on meeting the numbers. And the emphasis ought to be in this administration on giving the people that work in this government the tools, the training, and the technology they need to get the job done."
Styles said OMB had to set targets in order to persuade civilian agencies to build the infrastructure needed to hold public-private job competitions. She also emphasized that OMB has worked with agencies to develop plans that fit their needs, and reiterated that some agencies could fall short of the 15 percent target if OMB approves their competitive sourcing plans.
"There are agencies where it is not appropriate right now for them to be competing 15 percent," she said.
Where Voinovich expressed concern over how the targets could impact federal personnel needs, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., questioned the administration's commitment to public-private competition, noting that OMB has not set any goals for letting federal employees bid on work that has already been contracted-out to the private sector.
Styles replied by saying the administration thinks "contracting-in" can be appropriate in certain cases, but has not set targets for the process because contractors must compete against one another to win federal work. Federal jobs, in contrast, have never been subject to competition, making them a higher priority for competition in OMB's view.
"Jobs in the public sector now have never been subjected to the pressure of competition, which is why our goal is to focus on competing jobs performed in the public sector right now," she said.
But Durbin said federal employees deserve the right to compete for work performed by contractors.
"If our goal is to have quality service for the taxpayer, and to have real competition, we ought to recompete those jobs that go to the private sector," he said. Durbin also pledged to gather support for the union-backed Truthfulness Responsibility and Accountability in Contracting (TRAC) Act, which would allow federal employees to compete for work that is currently performed in the private sector.
The hearing was frequently interrupted by applause and groans from members of the American Federal of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, who numbered in the hundreds. "It felt as much like a political rally as a Senate hearing," said Dan Guttman, a fellow with the National Academy of Public Administration who also testified before the panel.
The union members strongly opposed OMB's competitive sourcing plan. "I represent 1,000 employees who are basically terrified of losing their jobs," said David Owens, president of AFGE Local 1101 at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska, after the hearing.
The lone senator with kind words for the competitive sourcing plan was Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who said it helps fulfill the vision behind the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act, which requires federal agencies to prepare annual lists of jobs that could be performed in the private sector.