For lawmakers looking to rein in the Bush administration's competitive sourcing initiative, the events that unfolded over the weekend during Congress' consideration of the fiscal 2005 omnibus spending measure felt uncomfortably familiar.
At the last minute, language that would have placed new limits on efforts to subject federal jobs to private sector competition was dropped in the final version of the bill, mirroring what also has happened in each of the past two years.
Congressional staff members and lobbyists involved with the negotiations say the language was deleted because lawmakers were unable to stand up to the pressure of a White House veto threat, even after the measure had gained bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Eleventh-hour attempts to reach a compromise failed.
The staffers and lobbyists said the competitive sourcing language was the most contentious issue in the spending bill this year, and one of the main reasons its passage was delayed.
The White House has other interests, such as limiting federal pay increases, said Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. "But that doesn't rise to the level of a veto," he said. "When it comes to the competitive sourcing stuff … the Bush administration is willing to put their necks out."
After the White House issued a veto threat, House Republican leaders were "literally crossing out the provisions as the bill was sent to the floor," said John Threlkeld, a lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees, who added that he was not surprised to see a repeat of the previous years' moves on competitive sourcing.
The language at issue, sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., would have restricted how funds could be used to conduct job competitions. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., also supported additional restrictions on competitions, giving the language bipartisan support.
Nevertheless, few lawmakers and lobbyists were surprised that the amendments were pulled. Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank devoted to the study of government management, said he didn't think "for an instant" that the language would stay in the bill. "The president has immense capital this year," DeMaio said.
Congress' action, coupled with the confirmation of David Safavian as the new federal procurement policy chief, is a clear sign that the president will continue to push competitive sourcing, DeMaio said.
Still, he expects members of Congress will make another run at limiting such efforts. "They will once again probably try next year and will probably suffer the same fate," DeMaio said.
Supporters of competitive sourcing limits say lawmakers will need to take a different approach next year. Biggs said competitive sourcing language similar to that introduced by Van Hollen and Mikulski will have a better chance of passing if appropriations bills are passed separately for different agencies, instead of being lumped together in an omnibus bill.
If language limiting competitive sourcing was in each bill, the president would have a harder time issuing a credible veto threat for all them, he said.
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that each year, "the numbers have been higher and higher in support of the language we put forth and in opposition to what the White House wanted." She said she believes those numbers will continue to grow, which will enable Congress to stand up to future veto threats.
"We're not going to stop," she said.