Senate allows new job competitions at Interior, Forest Service
Language added Tuesday to the Senate version of the Interior appropriations bill would allow the department to put more jobs up for bids, but also enables lawmakers to monitor the results of public-private job competitions at Interior.
Senators approved the language, offered by Sens. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, by a vote of 53 to 43. The amendment requires the secretary of Interior to provide Congress with an annual report including statistics on numbers of competitions conducted, the results of those competitions, money spent on competitive sourcing and estimated and actual savings generated by these competitions.
Under the amendment, Interior would also need to provide lawmakers with a "general description of how the competitive sourcing decisionmaking processes of the department . . . are aligned with [its] strategic workforce plan."
But unlike an amendment to the Interior appropriations bill proposed last week by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. , the Thomas-Voinovich provision would not limit future competitions at the Interior Department. Reid's amendment, which the Senate defeated Tuesday by a vote of 51 to 44, would have prevented Interior and the Forest Service (which is part of the Agriculture Department but receives funds from the Interior bill), from initiating new competitive sourcing studies in fiscal 2004. These agencies could have completed studies already underway under Reid's amendment.
"These votes are a huge victory for taxpayers and [for] President Bush's management agenda," said Thomas in a statement. "Competitive sourcing is being used to help improve the services available on our public lands."
The National Park Service, part of Interior, will benefit from A-76 activities, Thomas said. "The effort underway at the Park Service to use competitive sourcing as a tool for improving fiscal and operational efficiency comes at a time when the Park Service is facing a tremendous funding shortfall for maintenance at almost every park," he said. He claimed the agency would likely save money thanks to public-private competitions, regardless of whether work stayed in-house or moved to contractors.
The Thomas-Voinovich amendment gave lawmakers an opportunity to address shortcomings of competitive sourcing without derailing the administration's initiative, according to Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank. Reid's amendment left senators critical of A-76 with no option but to halt future competitions at Interior, he said. "We felt that members of Congress needed to have an alternative."
DeMaio applauded the measure for using the "principles of accountability, transparency and performance to improve the competitive sourcing process." He added that he would eventually like to see the A-76 reporting requirements championed by Thomas and Voinovich adopted across government agencies.
But John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called the Thomas-Voinovich amendment a "half-measure" that would "leave in place a flawed, pro-private-contractor process." Gage encouraged House-Senate negotiators to make sure the conference report version of the budget bill includes language delaying Bush's "wholesale privatization effort" and allowing lawmakers time to review "costs and consequences" of competitive sourcing.
'The Senate has yet to realize what a majority of the House already knows: the administration's approach to outsourcing is flawed and deserves careful evaluation," said Thomas Kiernan, president of National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington-based advocacy group. "Our national parks, the National Park Service and the experiences of millions of visitors could suffer as a result."
In July, the House passed a version of the Interior appropriations bill containing the same provision Reid proposed. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, opposed the language but agreed to hold his complaints until the bill reaches House-Senate negotiations.
The White House has threatened to veto the final version of the appropriations bill if it contains language limiting President Bush's competitive sourcing initiative. The initiative is one component of Bush's five-part management agenda.
Amendments halting job competitions would "short-circuit" progress already made on competitive sourcing, the Office of Management and Budget said in a policy statement earlier this month. "Prohibiting public-private competitions is akin to mandating a monopoly regardless of the impact on services to citizens and the added costs to taxpayers."
The administration used the same wording in early September to oppose an amendment to the House Treasury-Transportation bill that would scrap revisions to OMB Circular A-76, which sets the rules for public-private competitions. House lawmakers nevertheless passed the amendment by a margin of 22 votes.
But Kiernan of the National Parks Conservation Association said the "battle" over the Interior bill is not over, even though the Senate voted down the Reid amendment. "There will be other opportunities to raise this issue in Congress . . . including the upcoming conference between the House and Senate."