Lawmakers target job competitions at two agencies

Members of Congress launched fresh efforts to halt public-private job competitions at the Agriculture Department and National Park Service Thursday, as Bush administration officials tried to fend off congressional assaults on the competitive sourcing initiative.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced legislation that would stop all competitive sourcing at the National Park Service, and transfer funds being used for job competitions to pay for repairs in national parks. "Privatization will waste taxpayer dollars," said Reid at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol. "I can't understand how the administration would even think of doing something like this at the national parks."

The legislation is the latest attempt to halt competitive sourcing at the National Park Service. On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved a measure that would halt funds for new job competitions at most Interior Department agencies, including the Park Service, in fiscal 2004. The Forest Service would also be blocked from starting new job competitions under the provision.

The Appropriations Committee also approved a measure Wednesday that would block funding for job competitions at the Agriculture Department until the department provides Congress with budget information on its competitive sourcing program. This provision, written by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, would prohibit Agriculture from conducting job competitions or compiling an inventory of commercial jobs, required under the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act, until the department submits a report on its competitive sourcing activities to Congress.

"If they don't make the information available then the funding is not going to be forthcoming," said Steven Fought, legislative director for Kaptur. Fought said the provision was designed to prod Agriculture to provide the Appropriations Committee with information on job competitions at Agriculture's Farm Services Agency and Rural Development Agency.

"Our intent here is to focus on Rural Development and Farm Service," he said. Members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, including Republicans Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and John Shimkus, R-Ill., have raised concerns with a job competition at the Farm Services Agency involving workers that support farm loan programs.

"When your administer a loan program do you want someone who's a private contractor going over loan applications or do you want a government employee?" asked Fought.

About 150 employees are competing for their jobs as part of the Farm Services Agency competition, which is almost finished, according to Agriculture Department spokesman Jim Brownlee.

Fought added that the Appropriations Committee had asked for reports on outsourcing at the Agriculture Department before, but the department had not supplied it. "Now we've asked for it again, and this time we're telling you that if you don't give it to us, there'll be consequences," said Fought.

Julie Quick, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, said the department already had provided Congress with detailed information on its competitive sourcing program, but would work to answer the committee's questions.

Angela Styles, the administrator of federal procurement at the Office of Management and Budget, stressed the administration's opposition to all provisions that would exempt certain federal employees from the job competition initiative. "We can't start creating special interest groups that are exempt from competition," she told reporters after a House Government Reform Committee hearing on the new A-76 process. She added that House appropriators were largely concerned with how Interior and the Forest Service have been funding job competitions, and were not opposed to competitive sourcing itself.

Styles was sharply critical of the new legislation from Reid and Rahall, arguing that competitive sourcing is appropriate for some positions in the Park Service. "How is a janitor at the Park Service 'inherently governmental'"? she asked. "People are trying to protect special classes in their state or district and say these really aren't up for competition, without looking at the broad goals of what we're trying to achieve."

Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., who sponsored the 1998 FAIR Act, also weighed in on the Democrats' legislation. "I'm disappointed in it. I think there's an opportunity here to make a better Park Service and a better government, and I think that [legislation] is the wrong thing to do." Thomas chairs the Subcommittee on National Parks of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which likely would have jurisdiction over the Reid legislation, he said.

Thomas also said that the Park Service competitive sourcing plan is poorly understood. He said the agency had no plans to hold job competitions on park rangers, an implication made by Reid at Thursday's press conference. The Park Service considers rangers to be inherently governmental and off-limits for competitive sourcing, according to Helen Bradwell-Lynch, director of competitive sourcing at Interior.

The Democrats' legislation would still allow park superintendents to hire contractors on a park-by-park basis, but would block compliance with the Bush competitive sourcing initiative, according to the bill. Reid said he would circulate a "dear colleague" letter to round up support for the legislation, and "take a stab" at adding portions of the bill to appropriations legislation. The bill is supported by the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington-based advocacy group for the national park system.

Scott Cameron, deputy assistant secretary for performance and management at the Interior Department, said congressional efforts to stop job competitions at Interior have not disrupted the department's plans. When asked why legislators are focusing on Interior's initiatives, he speculated that department efforts to communicate with employees had made competitive sourcing more visible at the department.

"We started very early when the President's Management Agenda came out to communicate to our employees that competitive sourcing is coming and to start progress on these studies, so in that sense our activities may be more obvious than what is going on at other agencies," he told GovExec.com during a recess of Thursday's hearing.

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