Legislation to slow job competitions at two agencies survives—for now

Legislation that would prevent new competitive sourcing studies at the Interior Department and Forest Service next year survived debate on the House floor Thursday, as Republicans agreed to resolve differences on the matter in the House-Senate conference over the Interior appropriations bill.

After a week of negotiations, Reps. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, and Charles Taylor, R-N.C., reached agreement to deal with the measure, Section 335 in the Interior bill, when the bill moves to conference. Under the agreement, Sessions did not press for an amendment to strike Section 335 from the bill, as planned. The measure originated in an appropriations subcommittee chaired by Taylor.

Supporters and critics of competitive sourcing both claimed victory over the agreement, which preserves the ban on new competitions but opens the door to challenges in conference committee. "The [Bush] administration's allies in the House realized that there was enough opposition to their privatization scheme and did not want to risk a loss on the House floor," said Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, in a statement.

But Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, said Taylor would scrap the provision in conference. "It looks like…Congressman Taylor will do what needs to be done to remove the language in conference, and that's progress," said DeMaio.

Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said the agreement should enable competitions to move ahead at Interior and the Forest Service. "We're pleased there is a commitment to work out language that would allow the president's competitive sourcing initiative to continue to move forward at the National Park Service, Forest Service and elsewhere so that the best value for the taxpayer can be achieved," he said.

The Senate version of the Interior bill would require the Forest Service to seek congressional approval for new and ongoing competitions in fiscal 2004, but it does not contain a ban on new competitions.

In remarks on the House floor, Taylor did not pledge to remove the ban on new competitions when the bill moves to conference, but did agree to keep working with Sessions and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., to find a solution. He also urged the Forest Service and Interior to make the cost of their competitive sourcing programs more transparent, and to follow appropriators' reprogramming guidelines when they shift funds to finance competitions. Taylor's office did not return phone calls asking for clarification of his agreement with Sessions.

Gina Vaughn, a spokeswoman for Sessions, would not detail the terms of the agreement between Taylor and Sessions, but said the two lawmakers believed their differences could be ironed out. "Mr. Taylor understands the concerns that Mr. Sessions has over this provision, and Mr. Sessions is confident they can be resolved," she said.

In a separate challenge to Interior's competitive sourcing program, Reps. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., and Allan Boyd, D-Fla., planned to offer an amendment to the Interior bill that would halt ongoing competitions at two National Park Service facilities, the Midwest Archeological Center in Lincoln, Neb. and the Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee, Fla.

"The amendment we are offering is needed to block implementation of the archaeological center studies which are already under way," said a "Dear Colleague" letter the lawmakers' circulated on Wednesday. Bereuter and Boyd planned to offer the amendment late Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Senate agreed late Thursday to accept an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill introduced by Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., that would require Defense to let in-house employees reorganize into a "most efficient organization" in all public-private competitions involving 10 or more employees. Under OMB's Circular A-76, agencies are only required to let employees reorganize themselves in competitions with 65 or more employees, although they have the option to reorganize in smaller competitions as well.

Other legislation affecting competitive sourcing made progress this week. On Monday, the full House passed legislation requiring the Agriculture Department to report to Congress on its competitive sourcing program before holding public-private job competitions in fiscal 2004.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, requires the department to report on its competitive sourcing budget and policies before it can use funds to hold job competitions or comply with the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act. The measure was part of the Agriculture appropriations bill.

"It is extremely important that the department be forthcoming with information about privatization; they have not done so thus far," said Kaptur in a statement Tuesday. "I am pleased we finally have their attention."

Kaptur's provision is not seen as a major challenge to Agriculture's competitive sourcing program, the third-largest in government. In a statement of administration policy on the measure, OMB said Kaptur's provision would only require Agriculture to notify Congress of its competitive sourcing plan.

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